A video of soldiers beating and arresting photojournalist James Akena in Uganda rightly caused outrage this week.
Akena was photographing protests against the arrest and torture of popular musician and independent parliamentarian Robert Kyangulanyi, known as Bobi Wine, and others. Surrounded by soldiers, Akena put his hands in the air, holding only his camera, as they beat him until he was carried off. Akena was later released and hospitalized for injuries.
After widespread condemnation and reports of other journalists being beaten that day, the Ugandan army issued a statement, expressing “displeasure” at the soldiers’ unprofessional conduct, saying orders had been issued for the soldiers’ arrest and punishment.
That would be a good outcome, but without more fundamental changes, I doubt it will stop more journalists from facing beatings in the future. Security forces have beaten journalists with limited repercussions for years in Uganda. Other government bodies then censor coverage of army-orchestrated violence. Beating journalists serves two purposes: It scares some journalists from covering politically sensitive events, and, at times, it prevents evidence of soldiers beating or even killing civilians from reaching the public.
In 2009, I spoke with photographer Edward Echwalu after he photographed protests in Kampala during which security forces killed at least 50 people. Soldiers surrounded him demanding to see his photos. “When they saw the pictures of the dead body, they didn’t like those pictures; they were uncomfortable. I was beginning to explain the situation when the military police, about six of them, started beating me, telling me to delete the photos.” After detaining him, beating him, and deleting his photos, the soldiers released him.
In 2011, when “Walk to Work” protesters decried rising food and fuel prices, security forces killed at least nine people countrywide. The government regulator banned live broadcasts of the protests and threatened to revoke the license of any network that failed to comply.
Similarly, in September 2017, the military raided parliament and beat some parliamentarians during a debate about removing the constitution’s age limit on presidential candidates, paving the way for President Yoweri Museveni to stand again. After television cameras broadcast the soldiers’ actions, the government’s broadcasting regulator banned all live broadcasts for a week, arguing they promote a “culture of violence.”
These actions curtail the public’s access to information – information they could use to question the government’s policies. With more and more cameras readily available, beating or censoring the messenger isn’t feasible in the long-term. It will only lead to more fodder for citizen journalists and more questions about why the government resorts to violence in the face of criticism.