(Kampala) - Ugandan police and Resident District Commissioners are intimidating civil society activists seeking to expose and condemn allegations of government corruption, Human Rights Watch said today. Outside Kampala, some officials are also intimidating journalists reporting about the activists' efforts.
Since February 5, 2011, Kampala police have intimidated, arrested, and detained 16 people who distributed a joint statement on behalf of several Ugandan nongovernmental organizations. Some were held as long as overnight, though no charges were filed. In Lira district, police and the resident district commissioner summoned a civil society activist to the police station for interrogation after a member of her organization read the statement during a radio talk show.
"Anti-corruption efforts should be welcomed, not suppressed," said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Civil society activists are protected in international law from reprisals for legitimate freedom of expression. They shouldn't be facing interrogations or accusations of partisanship when they speak out for transparency and accountability about state resources."
Ugandans will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on February 18. Unlike past elections in Uganda, the 2011 campaign period has been relatively free of state-orchestrated violence. However, during the election campaign serious concerns have emerged about how public funds are being used, particularly to support the campaigns of the ruling National Resistance Movement, led by President Yoweri Museveni.
President Museveni came to power in 1986, following a protracted rebellion. After elections marked by violence in 2001, the president pushed through an amendment to the constitution in 2005 that nullified Uganda's two-term presidential limit, allowing him to run in an equally controversial election in 2006 and again in 2011. This election is just the second since 1986 in which opposition parties have been legally permitted to campaign.
In late January, although Uganda's Treasury said it had cash flow problems, parliament approved payments of 20 million Uganda shillings (US$8,500) to each of its nearly 330 members as part of a supplementary budget allocation. The money was officially said to be for monitoring government programs, but many anti-corruption activists questioned whether that was the real reason behind such a large disbursement of money to government officials just a few weeks before elections.
A coalition of nongovernmental organizations coordinated by the National NGO Forum working on a campaign called "Return Our Money" issued a statement on January 26 condemning the government's allocation of public funds in this manner and calling on members of parliament to return the money. At least twelve have done so and the activists continue to call on the public to intensify pressure on other parliamentarians holding on to the money.
In the statement, the authors contend that the payments were "widely believed to be a bribe," given that the members of parliament already receive money for monitoring work, that there were no guidelines for spending the money, and that the novel payout came just a few weeks before the elections. The statement lists several development projects, such as water sources, food for students, and sanitation services, which could have used the money.
On February 5, police detained a volunteer who was trying to deliver the statement to a local government official in Kampala. The volunteer was detained, along with a National NGO Forum employee organizing the distribution. They were taken to room 48 of the Central Police Station in Kampala, their phones were confiscated, and a long interrogation ensued. They were interrogated by uniformed and plainclothes police, asked for personal details such as the names and addresses of family members, and told they may be charged with treason or incitement to violence. The police threatened to transfer them to the headquarters of the Police's Rapid Response Unit in Kireka, a unit mandated to investigate violent crime that has a reputation for mistreating detainees. They were released after four hours.
One of those detained told Human Rights Watch, "I felt intimidated by police. They threatened me with abuse and asked me if I had permission to publish the statement. I told them, I don't need permission to do my work. Then police asked me who I would vote for."
In subsequent days, 14 more people have been arrested, either for distributing the statement or for having it in their possession. On February 6, four people were arrested and held at Wandegeya Police Station, where one officer allegedly told them they would be charged with sedition, a crime ruled unconstitutional by the constitutional court last year. Three more were detained in Kasangati police station on February 6 and released the following day. Two others were detained on February 6 in Old Kampala Police Station for several hours. On February 9, another five people with the statement were detained in police jails around Kampala.
The statement has also prompted police action in Lira district in Northern Uganda. On February 7, Radio Rhino, a local station, hosted a talk show with the chairmen of three political parties. During the program, a civil society member from Facilitation for Peace and Development (FAPAD) read the anti-corruption statement and the moderator summarized it in the local language for listeners. FAPAD is a member of Uganda Governance Monitoring Platform, one of the groups that signed the statement. The next day, the group's executive director, Eunice Apio, was summoned for interrogation separately by both the district police commander and the resident district commissioner, a person directly appointed by the president for each district.
During interrogation, the police commander allegedly threatened Apio that she would be charged with incitement to violence or hurting the reputation of the president as well as other crimes. In another meeting on February 9, the district police commissioner, the district internal security officer, and the resident district commissioner, along with police, questioned Apio again about the contents of the statement. In the end, the officials told her group that there was moratorium on any further comments to the press about the payments to the parliament members, but refused to put such a statement in writing or provide the legal basis for imposing such a moratorium.
Journalists in Lira have also faced intimidation because of the statement. On February 9, the district police commissioner called a meeting of news editors of the six radio stations to discuss the upcoming election and noted that some media houses were already, "going astray." He allegedly stated that because the statement suggested that voters should not vote for those who did not return the money, nongovernmental organizations were not impartial. He warned journalists against broadcasting information from people who might "use them wrongly." He contended that because people in Lira are still traumatized by the long war with the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, such statements from civil society are not acceptable. Later, the moderator of Radio Rhino's talk show was required to make a formal written statement to police about the content of show on which the statement had been read and to explain the decision to allow the statement to be read. No charges have been filed.
While the National NGO Forum has allegedly been told that police will not interfere further with their work, the acts of intimidation may have a chilling effect on civil society members and local journalists, especially those in rural areas, and make them reluctant to report on and research corruption and human rights issues, Human Rights Watch said. In 2010, Human Rights Watch documented intimidation, harassment, and threats against the rural-based media by ruling party officials seeking to curtail criticism of government.
"Telling journalists and civil society when and how they can speak about issues of legitimate public concern is a direct threat to their freedom of expression," Burnett said. "Police officials and presidential appointees need to obey the law and ensure that there is an opportunity debate government policy and educate voters."