Police beat, detain journalists covering opposition candidates ahead of Uganda elections

Newspapers covering upcoming elections are seen in Kampala, Uganda, on January 4, 2021. Security forces have harassed and detained journalists covering opposition candidates in the election. (AFP/Sumy Sadurni)

Ugandan security forces should stop harassing and attacking journalists, and should ensure that the press can freely cover the country’s upcoming elections, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Since December 11, security officers have assaulted at least 10 journalists covering opposition events ahead of the country’s January 14 presidential election, and briefly detained at least two members of the press and questioned them about their work, according to media reports and journalists who spoke with CPJ.

“The unabated violence and hostility against journalists ahead of Uganda’s general election is shocking. Reporting on the opposition has become an unacceptably dangerous job,” said CPJ Sub-Saharan Africa Representative Muthoki Mumo. “Authorities must thoroughly investigate these attacks; it is past time for the Ugandan government to move beyond empty words and to take urgent and decisive action.”

On December 11, in the northern district of Lira, security personnel used batons and the butts of their guns to assault a group of at least six journalists covering the campaign of opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, according to media reports, a statement by the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, a local press rights group, and four of the journalists, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Police assaulted Busoga One FM reporter Moses Waiswa, BBS Terefayina reporter and anchor Ssesanga Batte, NTV Uganda reporter and camera operator John Cliff Wamala, Bukedde TV reporter David Tamale, Atusingwize Jonan, a reporter with the Pearl of Africa radio station and the online outlet Ghetto Media, and Ronald Mugyenyi, a reporter and cameraperson, also with Ghetto Media, which supports Bobi Wine, according to those sources.

Waiswa told CPJ that he suffered cuts on his head, and that he ran and hid in a swamp for about an hour to avoid further assault. He said he was hospitalized for two days and continues to suffer headaches. Atusingwize told CPJ that he suffered pains to his back and stomach, and Mugyenyi said that the officers fractured one of his hands. Ssesanga told CPJ that the officers beat him despite protests that he was a journalist, leaving him with a wound on his head. Tamale and Wamala did not immediately respond to CPJ’s messages requesting interviews.

On December 27, police in Uganda’s central district of Masaka fired projectiles that injured at least three journalists covering Bobi Wine’s campaign, according to media reports and journalists who spoke to CPJ.

A police officer fired a projectile that hit Kasirye Saif-Ilah Ashraf, a reporter for Ghetto Media, in the head, according to Atusingwize, the journalist’s colleague, and Ali Mivule, a reporter with the privately owned broadcaster NTV Uganda, who witnessed the incident, both of whom spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Media footage of the incident shows Kasirye bleeding from his head, and Atusingwize told CPJ that a doctor at a Kampala hospital said the journalist’s skull was cracked. In a December 27 statement, police spokesperson Fred Enanga alleged that Kasirye was hit by a teargas canister. Atusingwize told CPJ, citing medical reports, that he believed Kasirye was hit with a rubber bullet.

As of yesterday, Kasirye remained in the hospital and was unable to speak, Atusingwize said. Kasirye was previously hospitalized for several days in December, after police held his mouth open and pepper sprayed him, as CPJ documented at the time.

At the same event on December 27, the officer who fired the projectile that hit Kasirye also fired a teargas canister at Mivule, hitting him on his thigh and causing painful swelling, according to the journalist and news reports.

Mivule said that the officer spoke to him and said he was “collateral damage.” Mivule and Daniel Lutaaya, a reporter with the privately owned broadcaster NBS TV, who witnessed the attacks on Kasirye and Mivule, both told CPJ that they saw the officer’s name tag on his uniform and identified him as Greater Masaka Regional Police Commander Enoch Abaine.

Lutaaya was also injured on December 27, he told CPJ, saying that police fired projectiles near a bodaboda motorbike taxi he was riding, causing it to crash into several other vehicles. Lutaaya, who was wearing a press jacket at the time, said that he could not immediately identify the projectiles, but that he saw teargas cannisters on the ground following the accident.

He said that he suffered an injury on his left heel and was hospitalized for five days, and had not resumed work as of today.

When CPJ called Abaine for comment, he claimed that no journalist had been intentionally targeted during the December 27 incident in Masaka, and said that reports of his involvement in attacks on journalists were political “blackmail” and “fake news.” He said that authorities are investigating allegations that journalists had been injured at the event.

On December 30, in Kalangala, central Uganda, security personnel briefly detained two reporters, Derrick Wandera of the privately owned newspaper Daily Monitor and Culton Scovia Nakamya of the broadcaster BBS Terefayina, while they were covering security personnel arresting Bobi Wine, according to the journalists, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and media reports.

Nakamya told CPJ that five soldiers and police officers questioned her about her social media posts and accused her of inciting violence in her coverage of Bobi Wine’s arrest. She responded that she was doing her job, and they released her without charge after about five minutes, she said.

Police held Wandera in an open field at the scene of his arrest and questioned him about his live reporting and past coverage, accusing him of negatively profiling security personnel including in a November 10 article about a police officer who allegedly harassed Bobi Wine, he said.

Wandera said the officers then forced him into a patrol car and drove him to the local Kalangala police station, where he was held for several hours before being released without charge.

On January 1, in the northern Nebbi district, a man confronted ChimpReports news website reporter and photographer Dedan Kimathi, who was on the campaign trail of opposition presidential candidate Patrick Amuriat, and tried to take his camera from him, according to a report by ChimpReports and Kimathi, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

As he struggled on the ground with his assailant, police officers and soldiers surrounded Kimathi, punched him, beat him with batons, and tried to take away his camera, Kimathi told CPJ. He said the officers broke his camera in the process, and after the scuffle forced him to delete photos that he had taken.

Kimathi said he suffered a cut below his left eye and had chest pains as a result of the attack.

In a statement on December 27, Enanga said that “journalists were regrettably caught up” in a confrontation with supporters of Bobi Wine in Masaka, and said that the police Media Crimes Unit had opened investigations into the incident. He said that police “pledge better protection cover” to journalists covering campaigns.

CPJ called, texted, and messaged Enaga for comment, but he did not respond.

When CPJ called military spokesperson Brigadier General Flavia Byekwaso, she requested questions to be sent via messaging app. CPJ then sent questions, but she did not respond.

CPJ had previously documented physical attacks on journalists covering Uganda’s upcoming presidential elections, as well as the use of stringent accreditation rules to restrict election coverage.

* Consult CPJ’s safety advisory on covering Uganda’s elections

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About Cholo Brooks 13776 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.

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