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Ugandan poll workers count ballot papers at Nakasero Market polling station in Uganda’s capital Kampala on February 18, 2011.  © 2011 Reuters

(Kampala) – The Ugandan government should ensure a level playing field, free from abuse for all voters and candidates during the 2016 presidential election campaigns. Police brutality and obstruction of the media have characterized past campaign periods in Uganda. These abuses, plus the lack of accountability for election-related abuses, have undermined the voters’ right to a free and fair election in previous years.

Presidential campaigns begin on November 9, 2015, and elections are scheduled for February 18, 2016, in what will be President Yoweri Museveni’s 30th year in office. An opposition candidate for president, Kizza Besigye, who has challenged Museveni in the last three elections, is running again. Amama Mbabazi, Museveni’s longtime ally and former prime minister, has splintered from the ruling National Resistance Party (NRM) and is also running for president. Parliamentary campaigns officially begin on December 7, 2015.

“This campaign period is a critical opportunity to avoid the repression, violence, police brutality, and recriminations of past campaigns,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “All Ugandans should be able to attend rallies, listen to all candidates in person or on the radio, and express their views without reluctance or fear.”

A Ugandan security officer uses a pistol to break the window of a car which Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leader Kizza Besigye is in, as he is prevented from circulating in Uganda's capital Kampala on April 28, 2011. Besigye was eventually pepper-sprayed in the eyes, dragged from his car by police and arrested during protests against high food and fuel prices.  © 2011 Reuters

The last few campaigns have been marred by intimidation of the media and the opposition, including arbitrary arrests, partisan prosecution of opposition members, and physical attacks by state actors. Police brutality during opposition rallies has been a recent problem, with the frequent use of teargas to disperse people and violence directed at journalists seeking to report on the opposition.

Museveni’s long stay in office and his tight hold on government levers of power raise serious challenges for fair campaigns and elections. After the 2011 election, the European Union observer mission noted that “the power of incumbency was exercised to such an extent as to compromise severely the level playing field between the competing candidates and political parties.”

Human Rights Watch has interviewed scores of journalists throughout the country over many years. The government has closed down radio stations at various times for critically reporting on Museveni, and at one point, at least 40 individuals faced criminal charges for stating or repeating criticism of the government. After the 2011 elections, the EU observer mission stated that the state‐owned broadcaster, the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC), “failed to comply with its legal obligations to treat each presidential and parliamentary candidate equally” and “gave the incumbent president and the ruling National Resistance Movement party substantially more coverage than their nearest rivals.”

Radio journalists, especially those outside Kampala, report well-entrenched patterns of threats and harassment by local government officials and, in some instances, police, particularly after hosting the opposition or criticizing government programs.

In July 2015, Basoga Baino Radio, based in Jinja and known as Baba FM, was switched off at the main transmitter while Besigye was a guest on a program. The station is owned by the area’s member of parliament who is from the ruling NRM party. Station managers claimed publicly it was a technical glitch, and the Uganda Communications Commission denied involvement. But the station management suspended three journalists from their jobs for over a month as a result of Besigye’s appearance. As one journalist recently told Human Rights Watch, “Even with the condition to host whoever I deem fit, I have to think carefully before I report or host a guest.”
Journalists and civil society members tape their mouths shut as a protest against the closure of the premises of the Daily Monitor newspaper by the Uganda government, in the Uganda’s capital Kampala on May 20, 2013. Police raided Uganda's leading independent newspaper and disabled its printing press after it published a letter about a purported plot to stifle allegations that Uganda President Yoweri Museveni is grooming his son for power, a senior editor said.  © 2013 Reuters

Since protests in September 2009, the government has also banned all open-air talk shows, known as bimeeza. At the time, the Broadcasting Council, the government broadcasting regulator now known as the Uganda Communications Commission, issued a statement ordering radio stations to “suspend the broadcast of bimeeza programs until an adequate legal and technical framework has been provided for.”

At the time, the chairman stated that bimeeza do not comply with the Electronic Media Act because a license is granted to a station in a particular location in a specific geographical area where the broadcast is to be made, and because radio stations lacked “adequate technical facilities.” This was understood to refer to the fact that most bimeeza broadcasters do not have pre-listening facilities installed that enable the broadcasters to edit out offending language. He also stated that “presenters and producers are unable to control the crowd as it would be the case in a studio environment.”

An “appropriate regulatory framework” has never been established, and a number of radio station managers have told Human Rights Watch that they believe the suspension of these programs remains in effect. As one journalist in Gulu told Human Rights Watch recently: “It’s not live anymore. We record, and we edit. We don’t want to land into trouble.” Journalists and members of nongovernmental groups interviewed by Human Rights Watch over the years have said that the ban on bimeeza country-wide has left an information gap and prevented participation in local political discussions.

“One of the cornerstones of free speech is political expression and the right to criticize those in positions of power,” Burnett said. “Campaigns are a critical time for free expression, and the media have an important role to play. Government officials should ensure equal access to the airwaves throughout the campaigns.”

Police have a critical role in ensuring security during campaigns, but that is not a license to obstruct Uganda’s political opposition, Human Rights Watch said. Over several years, opposition leaders, particularly Besigye, have been detained when trying to address the public. Besigye routinely faces temporary “preventive arrest,” meaning police prevent him from leaving his home, contending that he plans to incite criminality and/or attend a rally that had not been approved by the police.  

Ugandan police have used teargas, rubber bullets, and brutality to obstruct opposition political meetings and rallies. Human Rights Watch has called on the government to condemn police interference with peaceful opposition rallies and publish guidelines on police use of teargas that comply with international standards. During recent presidential nominations last week, police did not prevent the opposition from holding processions and the situation remained calm.

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the police recruitment of hundreds of thousands of “crime preventers” throughout the country who lack a clear legal mandate or any clear command structure. A police spokesperson wrote in the local media that “crime preventers provide a link between the Uganda Police Force and Ugandan communities in the fight against crime” and that the information they provide is “processed by the area commanders to obtain intelligence such as in domestic-related crimes, land wrangles, burglaries, etc.” According to the National Crime Preventers Forum, 30 crime preventers have been recruited in each village, which, if true, would mean there are potentially over a million throughout the country. Partisanship among crime preventers is a serious risk to the campaign period, Human Rights Watch said. News reports have noted that some crime preventer regional coordinators are “well-known NRM mobilizers.” One crime preventer training manual obtained by Human Rights Watch notes that, “a crime preventer must know that every good thing you are seeing around is a result of good N.R.M. governance.” As one politician recently told Human Rights Watch: “I would describe crime preventers as NRM mobilizers. The problem with crime preventers is that it is being rolled out as a government program so any leader should attend.… But it ends up being political yet they have used resources from the central government. You see yellow [the ruling party color] everywhere and people with Museveni t-shirts.”

“Partisan policing could severely interfere with the ability of Uganda’s opposition to campaign, and deny voters the right to inform themselves and hear from and associate with all candidates,” Burnett said. “Any party participating in Uganda’s elections should ensure that it doesn’t use violence and that its supporters do not rely on violence or intimidation.”

Ensuring accountability for violence and election-related offenses such as bribery and voter intimidation will also be critical to a level playing field, Human Rights Watch said. During rulings on electoral petitions, often filed by aggrieved candidates seeking to invalidate results on the basis of electoral malpractice, high court judges have determined that candidates and campaign staff have committed criminal acts but the alleged crimes were rarely investigated and prosecuted. Some of those alleged to have committed the crimes during the 2006 elections were never investigated and have gone on to hold high office.

“The country’s laws should be enforced equally for all parties during the campaign,” Burnett said. “Police and prosecutors should investigate electoral malpractice and violent crimes in an independent and impartial manner and ensure respect for the rule of law.”

During the campaign period, the government of Uganda should:
  • Investigate any allegations of politically motivated violence, including by police or the army, in a transparent and timely way;
  • Respect the rights to free assembly and expression, particularly at rallies and on the radio;
  • Prohibit police from using teargas and other force simply because the police deem an otherwise peaceful gathering unlawful, including when police believe organizers have failed to comply with the Public Order Management Act’s requirements regarding police notification or permission;
  • Clarify the mandate and command structure of crime preventers in a public document and ensure they are non-partisan, unarmed, operate under close supervision, and are accountable to an independent authority;
  • Ensure that police and other state agents, including the resident district commissioners the president appoints for every district, refrain from any intimidation, obstruction, threats, harassment, and arbitrary arrest of journalists, talk show hosts, and station managers; and
  • Allow bimeeza so everyone can freely participate in discussing issues of national concern. 

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