From Bad to Worse

Unfortunately, the media siege in Uganda has gotten worse instead of better. For the ninth day in a row, the Daily Monitor, KFM, Dembe FM, and the Red Pepper were closed and cordoned off by police. A Ugandan magistrate ordered the police to stop their search for General Tinyefuza’s leaked letter last Wednesday, but the police defied the order and continued occupying Uganda’s two largest independent media houses—even after the officers admitted to concluding their search late last week.

With no letter found, the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura, who was promoted to full general on Friday after defying the court order and abrogating the rule of law, said that the Uganda Police Force (UPF) will continue to occupy the media houses until a letter is produced.

When members of civil society showed up at the Monitor on Thursday to protest the police occupation, four activists were arrested and later released. This morning activists returned to the Monitor to march in solidarity against media oppression, but they were met with strong resistance. The police launched teargas to disperse the crowd and roughed up several journalists. If you watch the video below, look for the policewoman who attacks a female journalist after 3:00:

No one I have talked to expected the media siege to last for ten days. After all, hasn’t Musevnei’s regime made its point? It can do whatever it wants to suppress media freedom while facing little to no opposition on a global stage.

I said in my previous post that this strongman move will make President Museveni look like a scared tyrant in the eyes of the international community. Well folks, I think I’m going to have to take that claim back.

Surprisingly, there has been virtually no resistance to Museveni’s forced shutdown of the two largest independent media houses in Uganda. As the Monitor Publications loses $46,379 per day in lost sales and marketing and the police beat up journalists who are forbidden from entering their offices, the international community has been mute—and even complicit—in Museveni’s crimes against the media.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon visited Uganda this weekend on a scheduled tour of the region and most of us expected him to speak out against this blatant violation of freedom of expression. Instead, not only did he avoid any mention of media freedom and human rights in his speech, he even praised Museveni’s “strong leadership” in regional security issues.

Really, Ban Ki Moon? To this day, people in Uganda praise Idi Amin’s “strong leadership.” That doesn’t mean you should reward them with $1 billion USD in development money the same week that they’re crushing all dissent.

 No worries though, because most of my Ugandan friends were sure that Barack Obama would come to the rescue. After all, he’s the one who topples tyrants and famously said, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen; it needs strong institutions.” 

So when one of Africa’s strongest men shuts down two of the strongest media institutions in the country, you would expect Uganda’s largest international partner, which pours more than $430 million into the country every year and upholds democracy as one of the White House’s four pillars for diplomacy in Sub-Saharan Africa, to take a stand.

Instead, the United States Mission in Uganda issued one of the meekest press releases I have ever read:

 The United States values press freedom as a key component of democratic governance. As Under Secretary Sonenshine said in her May 3 op-ed on World Press Freedom Day, journalists play a vital role in open and democratic societies.

We understand Ugandan security authorities searched and disrupted operations at several of Uganda’s leading media houses in response to the May 7 publication of a letter containing controversial comments by a Ugandan general on presidential succession in Uganda.

These disruptions, no matter the justifications offered, nonetheless risk having a chilling effect on the freedoms of expression and speech enshrined in the Ugandan Constitution.

I hope that the U.S. Mission is doing a bit more behind-the-scenes to confront the Ugandan regime on this issue, because quite frankly, this statement is not enough. The “disruptions” do not “risk” having a chilling effect on the freedoms of expression and speech; they completely violate every freedom that our country claims to stand for.

I have argued repeatedly that the United States is doing a lot of good in Uganda. Our foreign assistance to the health sector is literally saving lives every day. But as we spend hundreds of millions dollars keeping Uganda’s health sector afloat, we are relieving the government of an important responsibility to Ugandan tax payers. Instead of spending money on hospital equipment, the government now has more resources to strengthen the police state. And in that regard, we are complicit in the Ugandan government’s infringement on human rights.

I don’t know what we can do in Uganda and abroad to fight tyranny and oppression, but I think that gathering information is a good first step. That’s why over the next few days, I hope to find out as much as possible about what is going on and share that information with as many people as possible, including my friends at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala.

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