Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that no one seemed to be taking a stand for media freedom in Uganda. I admit that wasn’t entirely true. Dozens of civil society organizations in Uganda and abroad issued press statements criticizing the regime’s closing of the Red Pepper, Daily Monitor, Dembe, and KFM.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), for example, condemned the “flagrant violation of Uganda’s obligations under international human rights law” and asserted that “journalists must be able to speak and write without fear of persecution, arrest and intimidation.”
It’s a bold statement, but hardly a slap on the wrist for a seasoned strong man like President Museveni. If the United Nations really wanted to send a message, the Secretary General should have canceled his visit or told the President in person to reopen the media houses.
Words are great—and Ugandan journalists certainly appreciate the kind regards—but actions are better. That’s why they decided this weekend to take action themselves. If no one is coming to help us, they considered, we might as well help ourselves.
So yesterday marked Day One of the Journalists’ Demonstration at the Daily Monitor. A small but vocal NGO, the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, organized the march on the Daily Monitor offices in Namuwongo. And let me tell you: journalists in Uganda have covered a lot of protests in recent years. With all of this expertise, they really know how to get some attention.
Unfortunately, the police were caught off guard yesterday and they retaliated by launching tear gas into the crowd and roughing up several journalists, including the guy who got me this internship.
Daily Monitor photojournalist Isaac Kasamani captured the moment with an incredible photograph of two foreign correspondents fleeing from tear gas.
I attended Day Two of the Journalists’ Demonstration, but don’t worry, I wasn’t running from any tear gas. The police launched some teargas this afternoon, but the protests had already calmed down before I arrived.
When I showed up in Namuwongo, I saw two dozen journalists and activists marching towards a police barricade carrying bottles of water. Instead of throwing them, however, they extended them to the policemen as an olive branch of sorts.
“We know you’re thirsty,” one of my colleagues said. “You’ve been out here all day smelling tear gas.”
“We fight for underprivileged police officers,” another reporter said. It’s true: the Daily Monitor has published plenty of articles addressing low wages and corruption in the police force.
But the police weren’t having it. They refused to take the water and ordered the journalists to walk away. They journalists dispersed and came back a few minutes later with their protest signs.
Before they reached the police barricade, the Assistant Inspector General of Police, Andrew Kaweesi, came to meet them and walked into a ring of cameras. Almost immediately, the journalists started throwing questions at him and surprisingly, Kaweesi started bantering with them.
“Why can’t we continue past this barricade?” someone asked him.
“This is a crime scene,” he replied.
“Was the crime outside on the street? What crime was even committed?”
This back and forth continued for twenty minutes and I found a few things interesting from Kaweesi’s discussion. First, he seemed to genuinely support the police actions against the Monitor and Red Pepper. Since he’s one of the top commanders in the UPF, this makes sense.
He told us that the police wanted to see the letter from General Sejusa so that they could see who authored it, who leaked it, and if anyone committed a crime. When asked how the Uganda Police might apprehend Sejusa while he is abroad in London, he said, “Oh, we have our ways.”
He also admitted that the police weren’t looking for a copy of the letter at Red Pepper, even though they were searching there for seven days. The Red Pepper never published any part of the original Sejusa letter, but it did write several follow-up stories with quotes from the general and others who said things like “Museveni is worse than Idi Amin.” My journalist friends said that pretty much guaranteed their spot in the crackdown and Kaweesi said that the police wanted the Red Pepper “to explain some of their stories.”
Kaweesi also confirmed that the search of the Monitor is still “in progress” but that it “might end soon.”
Unfortunately, no one really knows when this closure will end. Every journalist is trying to talk with their sources in the government, but speculations range from one more day to three months.
There should be a big development tomorrow morning, when a magistrate will rule on whether or not the government can force the Daily Monitor to release a copy of the letter. If the court rules that the Monitor doesn’t have to release the letter, that will be a victory for media freedom, enabling journalists to continue protecting their sources in the future. Even if the Monitor wins in court, however, that doesn’t mean that the police will respect the court’s decision. In a country lacking the rule of law, they can continue occupying the media houses as long as they want.
As one journalist lamented during Cocktail Night tonight at Jakob’s Lounge, he was drinking to the “last shred of democracy being destroyed in Uganda.”
I’m not quite that pessimistic, but the situation here is pretty bleak. I have talked to many people in the last two days about why the media houses are still shut down and the story is even more complex—and sinister—than I originally thought.
I will try to distill some of what I’ve learned in a future blog post, but I am also going to be a bit more cautious from now on. If there is one thing this regime has shown this week it is that it’s not afraid to crush dissent at any cos t. As a foreign researcher sponsored by the U.S. government, I am well protected but not immune. More importantly, my actions also reflect on the Fulbright Program, the Daily Monitor, and Jakob’s Lounge.
So perhaps I should be more careful and should stop participating in protests myself:
At the same time, I also think it’s more valuable to take action than to complain from the safety of Facebook and Twitter. I later changed my sign to say: “Don’t be silent. Hoot for Media Freedom.” Even drivers passing by could express their support and the police hated it when cars honked at us. Oh well, if they would just let us back into our offices we would get off the streets…