(Note from the author: I have to admit that I hate the implication of what I’m trying to say here. I’m just scared and the subject is a complicated one – even after researching for two years I still feel l hardly know anything about it. I understand that many a hand before me has written a word too much and lived to regret it. But it’s even worse to keep quiet. I thus dare to write what I must, and in doing so, make the bed I will lie in).
'When information which properly belongs to the public
is systematically withheld by those in power,
the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs,
distrustful of those who manage them,
and eventually – incapable of determining their destinies'
President Richard Nixon, 1972
Looking through the window of a matatu, a myriad of different scenes unfold. I never cease to be amazed by the amount of things you can load a Ugandan bike with – a dozen live hens or gaping geese awaiting their destiny, hanging higgledy-piggledy from a boda boda or the handlebars of a motorbike.
On one of my knees I can feel the warmth of somebody’s completely relaxed hand. You can’t feel any tension in it, nothing affects the state of the passenger’s body, not even his mind – stress in Uganda is an abstract notion. The owner of the hand is most probably concerned with small things, he’ll probably go home, eat his cup of posho with beans, watch his kids playing in front of the house, and relax watching a Venezuelan soap opera “Secreto de Amor” or the next episode of Big Brother - a must on the to-do list of Ugandan youngsters and their parents, girls and clan matrons.
While watching these things, some react spontaneously with snorting, sniggering, laughing or smacking of lips. Some subconsciously recognise the clichés and are able to predict the sequel of the soap story. Quite alarmingly, the majority, however, exhibit imitative behaviours and copy their idols. As I am thinking about the Ugandans tendencies to uncritically mimic the pulp served up by movie channels, the passenger in the neighbouring seat stands up and leaves the car. Another one comes in and sits even closer than the first, casually invading what little remained of my personal space.
- Do you mind moving a little bit – I am a little bit nervous.
- No problem at all – the fellow passenger says and gives me some more space.
This is how I met Wokulira. In a matatu.
His critical attitude towards the Ugandan reality surprised me a great deal – on his knees there was a document case with some sheets on international human rights regarding the freedom of the media.
- Good piece of information there– I pointed out one of the paragraphs. He was the first one to ask me if I was a journalist as well. The next day I was already taking part in a meeting of the Human Rights Network for Journalists – a Ugandan association fighting for human rights and the defense of journalists in Uganda. Wokulira coordinated it. The first to talk was Andrew Mwenda – the Independent's journalist, who had been arrested by government agents the day before for what they deemed inflammatory remarks. Then, many other reporters talked about their experience: some from the Daily Monitor, Radio Sapientia and some others from the Independent. I felt somehow unconvinced and was quite skeptical about how or why they disclosed so much. My skepticism may not have been the reaction that was intended but the meeting just seemed over-blown and peppered with too much lofty rhetoric, as if it was directed: the Ugandan anthem sung at the beginning, the mottos chanted and repeated like a litany, it almost seemed like a march with previously prepared colorful posters. When Wokulira conspicuously whispered to us that a man behind the wheel of a car passing by might be a spy and gave me a ‘secret number’ jotted down on a piece of paper, I started thinking he was obsessed and it all was just a farce.
However, a series of detentions that followed were soon to disturb my peace of mind. The link between the arrests and the publications that preceded them were blatantly obvious and so I started to get to know more about the campaign with this mysterious, unidentified force of government agents. I also began to believe ‘the Mwenda guy’.
Andrew Mwenda is a Ugandan journalist and an active critic of multiple forms of Western aid to Africa. In August 2005 he was charged with sedition and promoting sectarianism after discussing during his radio talk show, ‘Andrew Mwenda Live’, the death of Sudanese vice-president John Garang. Garang was killed when the Ugandan presidential helicopter crashed in a storm over a rebel area, on the way back from talks in Uganda. During his radio programme, the journalist accused the Ugandan government of ‘incompetence’ and said they had put Garang on ‘a junk helicopter...at night...in poor weather...over an insecure area’. He also criticized President Yoweri Museveni, calling him ‘a failure’, ‘a coward’ and ‘a villager’.
During the debate Mwenda told us how in December 2007, he launched the newspaper ‘The Independent’ in Kampala. Before the planned launch of the paper, his printers were warned against co-operating with him. From his emails to TED officials:
“Our launch was supposed to be Friday last week with the maiden issue of the newspaper. Then, president’s office called our printers and asked them not to print us on Thursday morning for our launch issue of Friday morning. We ran desperately to other printers all of whom told us that they had been warned against printing us... however, we finally managed to get someone beyond state control and the paper is out. The lesson is that we need our own printer to be independent. The other, is that the road to freedom and liberty is a tough one”.
Soon after the launch of the magazine, he and two other ‘Independent’ journalists were arrested at the office of the newspaper by plain clothed security agents. They were then detained and charged of ‘being in possession of seditious material and of publishing inflammatory articles’ after publishing a torture story involving Uganda’s national army, the ‘Ugandan People’s Defence Forces’ (UPDF). Their computers were seized and the journalists were questioned.
I soon learnt that Mwenda’s wasn’t an isolated case. With my eyes now opened, I scribbled down as many reported incidents as I possibly could:
- The popular private station KFM (August 2005) was suspended after a broadcast relating to the death of a former rebel leader from Sudan;
- Radio Waa from Lira District was shut down after it broadcast news of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) invasion in the district,
- Radio Choice was shut down after hosting local opposition political leaders during the last day of the local council elections;
- The leader of the main opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Dr. Kiiza Besigye was taken off air during a radio talk show on Kitgum Radio Kitti;
- UBC TV talk show host Mr. Gawaya Tegule was dismissed from work for hosting opposition leader Dr. Kiiza Besigye on his show;
- On the 7th March 2005, the police arrested the Gulu Choice FM station programme manager only to later release him without charge and shut down the radio station, accusing it of operating without licence, although it had applied for a renewal;
- Radio Simba were fined $1000 for hosting a discussion on discrimination against homosexuals in Uganda;
- The national army, the UPDF, arrested the Lira Unity FM station manager Jimmy Onapa, journalist Paul Odongo, and two others for broadcasting reports of a meningitis outbreak in Moroto region...
The list seemed endless and the examples of forms of media oppression were many. Interestingly enough, all the incidents, thanks to Wokulira, ended up in court and the persecuted journalists would often meet at the police stations.
I soon learnt that even a foreign correspondent was not guaranteed freedom of expression in Uganda. Not only was the accreditation of BBC World Service correspondent Will Ross shortened from one year to four months without any explanation from the state but the Canadian correspondent for ‘The Economist’, Blake Lambert, was also declared persona non grata and forced to leave the country based on the Director of the Media Center Robert Kabushenga’s allegations that Lambert’s work was biased and prejudiced against Uganda’s foreign interests. Acts were condemned by organisations including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
With the most alarming cases being tracked by Human Rights Watch and the director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initative, Mr. Livingstone Ssewanyana, Uganda has started to become quite an autocratic country, and certainly far from free. Several other NGOs in Uganda defend journalists’ rights - support comes from the Foundation for African Development and other institutions such as: Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and the Danish International Development Agency.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution of Uganda: "Every citizen has a right of access to information in the possession of the State or any other organ or agency of the State, except where the release of the information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State or interfere with the right to the privacy of any other person." supra at Article 29. Article 41)
In the communications sector however, among the pending bills which contravene the freedom of expression, is the Anti Terrorism Act which bars the media to report on rebel insurgency. The Act says ‘anyone who engages in or carries out any act of terrorism commits an offense and shall on conviction be liable to suffer death’. Nevertheless, the definition of terrorism and additional offences are cast in terms that are too vague and general. Section 7 of the Act defines the offence of ‘terrorism’ – which of course is punishable by death - very broadly, increasing the risk of human rights violations further. On the other hand, the Penal Code Act not only has problems with the regulation of the right to privacy but also enforces sedition and sectarianism charges.
Other restrictive legislation which has the potential to stifle independent thought and action and infringe on freedom of communication is the recently passed “phone tapping bill”, otherwise known as the Regulation of Interception of Communication Bill 2007 which authorises government security agencies to tap private conversations as part of wider efforts to combat terrorism-related offences in the country; this includes: the interception of telephone calls, faxes, emails; monitoring meetings, movements and activities and electronic surveillance of people; and finally access to bank accounts. The Act says that the purposes for which interception or surveillance may be conducted are safeguarding the public interest. The Act allows the security officers to use ‘reasonable force’ while pursuing terrorism suspects, it states however that no police officer or person assisting such an officer in hunting suspected terrorists is liable to any civil proceedings. Such a law used wrongly may not only serve as a tool of censorship regarding rebel activities, allowing the government to conceal uneasy facts about the war with the rebels, but it can also lead to the abuse of media representatives who wish to publish materials on rebel activities.
Although the cases mentioned above seem quite outdated, things haven’t really improved. Actually, with the opposition against Museveni somewhere in the margin of 42% (the most recent data comes from 2006), the freedom of the press is getting narrower as the country heads closer towards to the 2011 presidential elections.
Among many, you will read stories about “a talk show host locked in a car boot for hours and later on beaten at the Central Police Station”, “a reporter assaulted for asking annoying questions”, or the recent case of Kingdom FM reporter Rogers Matovu, 22, who was arrested and detained on Monday the 19th/July/2010 (the constitution of Republic of Uganda Article 23(4) b bars security agencies from detaining anybody over than 48 hours from the time of his arrest) and has been released this Sunday without charge.
Uganda has at the moment more than 15 newspapers, 10 magazines, 45 TV stations, and 165 radio stations. Internet facilities are available mainly in urban areas and small towns.
The majority of media is private and controlled by so-called media houses – companies established with the same procedures as any another enterprise. According to HRNJ Uganda, most of the media houses managers and owners, however, put pressure on Ugandan journalists to drop or use particular stories; in turn, it is reported that some media houses have been forced by government to drop certain stories, especially those related to security.
(All photos by the author; for the safety of journalists the audio interviews with them remain unrevealed)