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(Nairobi) – The Ugandan government should immediately end politically motivated police intimidation of newspapers and radio stations and ensure that the media can operate freely, Human Rights Watch said today.

Recent raids on two newspapers and two radio stations are linked to a legal dispute in which the police have sought to obtain the source for an article by the Daily Monitor about the “Muhoozi Project,” an alleged plot to usher into power the son of President Yoweri Museveni.

“Police should resolve legal disputes before the courts without resorting to abusive tactics to scare journalists away from politically sensitive stories,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Muzzling the media is a bad way to address Uganda’s political debates.”

On May 7, 2013, the Daily Monitor published an article detailing an alleged conspiracy to frame or eliminate high-ranking members of the government who do not support a plan for Museveni’s son Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba to take over when his father steps down. The article was based on a leaked April 29 letter written by Uganda’s coordinator of intelligence service, Gen. David Sejjusa (also known as Tinyefuza), to the director of the Internal Security Organization calling for investigations into the plot. Sejjusa is currently outside of Uganda but has publicly confirmed that he wrote the letter.

In response to the article, the police media crimes unit questioned the article’s authors, Risdel Kasasira and Richard Wanambwa, as well as the Monitor’s managing editor, Don Wanyama. When the journalists refused to reveal the source of the letter, police sought and received a court order on May 15 ordering the Monitor to produce the original copy of the Sejjusa letter and disclose its source. In a statement on May 20, the Monitor said that it was contesting the demand by the police to disclose the source of the story and that “the matter is yet to be decided.”

Monitor staff told Human Rights Watch that at midday on May 20 about 50 police in uniform traveling in two pickup trucks arrived at Monitor headquarters in Namuwongo, Kampala, and closed off the building. The compound is also the headquarters of KFM radio and Dembe FM radio, all owned by the Nation Media Group. The police entered the premises with a search warrant and thenordered staff to stop working. Plainclothes police then entered.

The Monitor’s statement said that, “Instead of carrying out the search, armed men disabled the printing press, computer servers and radio transmission equipment.” Police also tried to disconnect the newspaper’s website and informed the staff that the area was the “scene of a crime,” witnesses said. Newspaper staff told Human Rights Watch that the police informed them that the crime was failing to turn over a document to police. The police held hundreds of staff members inside the compound for hours as they disabled equipment and ultimately conducted the search. At about 5 p.m., staff were ordered to leave but police maintained control of the newsroom and sealed off the premises. Police also raided the tabloid newspaper, the Red Pepper, in Namanve, a suburb of Kampala,allegedly looking for a source of the leaked letter.

“This Daily Monitor raid is a classic case of shooting the messenger,” Burnett said. “The authorities’ heavy handed actions and shutting down of the newspapers and radio stations show blatant show disregard for freedom of the press.”

Radio stations KFM and Dembe FM remain off the air. The Monitor’s printing press remains down and will not publish for at least another day. Police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba told the media that the police will continue the search until they find the original letter and the source of the leak, which might take many more days.

Godfrey Mutabazi, the chairman of the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the government broadcasting regulatory body, said that he had no case against the two radio stations but that they were operating from the scene of a crime and therefore needed to stay off the air. On May 14 the commission issued a warning to the broadcast media stating that the commission had “established that broadcast by some media houses on the recent events [the Sejjusa letter] … have not been professional and impartial,” and that some media were “turning the coverage of what should be news and factual broadcasts into political campaigns which are capable of derailing the socio-economic stability of our country.”

Radio stations have previously been taken off the air without due process, Human Rights Watch said. In 2009 the government forced four Luganda-language stations off the air during demonstrations supporting the Buganda traditional leader, the Kabaka. CBS radio, one of the four stations, remained off the air for over a year. In each case the radio stations were closed without any judicial process.

“The police and government regulatory bodies in Uganda have a history of shutting down broadcasts without due process in times of political controversy,” Burnett said. “The government needs to tolerate debate of divergent and critical opinions and leave concerns of professionalism and impartiality to the listeners.”

Human Rights Watch has documented how government officials and ruling party members intimidate and harass journalists who have reported critically about the government, presented opposing political views, or exposed state wrongdoing, such as corruption or failure to investigate crimes, particularly in rural areas.

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