Human Rights Watch has released a report documenting the repression of journalists as Uganda prepares for elections. Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni has been in office for 30 years and is running for another term.
Uganda's presidential and parliamentary elections are just over five weeks away on on February 18, 2016 and campaigning is in full swing. 71-year-old President Museveni is facing seven other candidates in the polls. Museveni's long-time opponent Kizza Besigye and former prime minister Amama Mbabazi are seen as his main rivals.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is concerned that Ugandan voters are not receiving the access to information about candidates and campaign issues to which they are entitled. Journalists are not able to cover sensitive issues like corruption or mismanagement of funds, Maria Burnett, a senior Africa researcher for HRW told DW.
Showing political loyalty
"We have a lot of concerns that particularly journalists working outside Kampala reporting in other languages than English face a lot of obstruction in reporting on issues of concern in their district," Burnett said. "Whether it's hosting opposition members or critically discussing the governance of the ruling party, we documented many cases where they had faced threats from government officials." In July 2015, journalists were suspended and a radio show by the local station Baba FM was halted. They had invited opposition leader Besigye to the studio without consulting the station's management.
HRW says it has interviewed 170 people in eight different parts of the country over the last few months. Media houses in Kampala enjoy a certain amount of journalistic freedom, the report explains, but regional radio stations upon which most Ugandans outside the capital rely, have found reporting particularly difficult.
Many of the journalists are vulnerable, Burnett told DW. "They work without contracts, they don't have a lot of legal assistance and they need to support their families," Burnett explained. "So for journalists working at a small radio station it makes sense for them to choose to censor the issues they report on or to choose not to report on certain topics."
Many local radio stations are owned by parliamentarians, who in many cases receive financial support from the government. "Clearly they see themselves as needing to show loyalty to the president as part of their parliamentary position," says Burnett. Such political obligations on the part of the station owners make the journalists' position even more difficult.
The government has rejected HRW's findings. "We have been carrying out free and fair elections for years and continue to do so," government spokesman Shaban Bantariza told reporters.
Kizza Besigye started his political career as a supporter of Museveni, but became a political opponent in 2001.
Several rights groups have recorded how Ugandan journalists have been exposed to harassment, violence and arrests. The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that a camera man was severely injured while covering a demonstration in November 2015.
CPJ also reported about the 24-hour detention of two editors of the daily Red Pepper and the weekly Kamunya for publishing and failing to reveal the source of a photograph allegedly showing the body of Christopher Aine, a security chief of opposition candidate Mbabazi who disappeared three weeks ago. It is still unclear whether the images which are also circulating on social media are authentic. After the release of the editors, an opposition politician and activist, Charles Rwomushana was also arrested for posting the picture on his Facebook account. Facing the press on January 9, 2016, Uganda's interior minister Rose Akol said: "The police are still looking for Mr Aine." She said that she didn't know where the published pictures come from.
TV debate could fizzle out
Uganda's first ever presidential TV debate on January 15 would have given voters the chance to watch all eight candidates debate election issues. But on January 9, Museveni's campaign spokesman announced that the president would be too busy to attend. Besigye also announced that he would not be taking part. The news sparked discussions on social media. Besigye's wife Winnie Byanyima, who is also the executive director of Oxfam International, tweeted the following.
Ugandan journalist and programme associate of the African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala, Grace Natabaalo, voiced her opinion that the debates should go ahead, with or without Museveni.
Privilege Musvanhiri contributed to this report.