On the surface, the media in Uganda looks vibrant. Dozens of papers populate the newsstands, there are numerous news channels on TV, and some 240 radio stations on the dial. Ugandans can also get online with relative ease.
However, many Ugandan journalists say that reporting the news can be risky. And a police presence is often not a reassurance, but a threat.
Here in Uganda, the media is the last man standing to give a platform to those that are not allowed to assemble, to associate and to express themselves through public forums and meetings.
In 2015, journalist Andrew Lwanga was assaulted by a senior policeman while reporting on a group of young Ugandans who were protesting against unemployment in the country.
“Two leaders of the youth were arrested, I happened to be behind. I was filming the arrest … Then he (the policeman) saw me, he got his cable [and] hit me. He hit me the second time. The third cane came in, I put the camera, he hit it, it was so strong he broke the LCD. The camera was in parts. So he hit me, then I blacked out,” says Lwanga, who spent 27 days in the hospital.
Overwhelming evidence of the assault on Lwanga by district police commander Joram Mwesigye got him suspended and charged. Two years later, in a case fraught with delays, irregularities and claims of witness intimidation, Mwesigye was found guilty of assault and fined a nominal $1,400. Lwanga says his medical bills have come in at around $60,000.
Mwesigye is the only police officer to have been convicted of assaulting a journalist despite the alarming frequency with which it happens.
“There are so many journalists that have been beaten [and have become disabled] out of police brutality … the police is not just beating journalists – they are beating citizens,” says Sarah Birete of the Centre for Constitutional Governance.
According to a report released by the Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda, the HRNJ-U – the security forces, especially the police, are the worst offenders against media freedoms. Of the 135 violations against journalists last year, 83 were committed by the Ugandan police. That’s more than 60 percent.
The HRNJ-U findings show that over the past four years there has been a spike in police aggression in Uganda. Exactly four years ago a controversial law was passed called the Public Order Management Act that many warned would put the opposition, protesters, activists and journalists on a collision course with the authorities.
“We know the spirit behind the particular law was to phase out critical voices, was to deny space to the opposition and all critical minds,” explains Robert Sempala, the national coordinator for HRNJ-U. “Here in Uganda, the media is the last man standing to give a platform to those that are not allowed to assemble, to associate and to express themselves through public forums and meetings.”
Meanwhile, Lwanga is forced to live at home with his retired mother. The former journalist struggles to make ends meet and is unlikely to work in the field, if not the profession, ever again. The policeman who assaulted him has walked free.
Andrew Lwanga, former journalist
Robert Sempala, national coordinator, HRNJ-U
Asan Kasingye, assistant Inspector General of Police
Sarah Birete, Centre for Constitutional Governance
Source: Al Jazeera