Rights watchdog slams Ugandan govt for “intimidating” media, civic groups

Mbabazi's supporters running from police teargas

Mbabazi’s supporters running from police teargas

The Human Rights Watch (HRW), US-based rights organization has condemned the Ugandan government repressive tendencies toward the media and civil groups in the East African nation in a systematic effort to stop them from criticizing the government and the ruling party ahead of next month’s general election.

In a scathing report titled ‘‘Keep the People Uninformed’: Pre-Election Threats to Free Expression and Association in Uganda,” the Human Rights Watch details how journalists and members of civic groups in Uganda have been subject to intensive and harsh government and security forces’ threats in the run up to February 18th general election.

“Fair elections require a level playing field in which all candidates can freely campaign and voters can make informed decisions,” said Maria Burnett, Senior Africa Researcher at Human Rights Watch adding “How can Uganda hold fair elections if the media and independent groups can’t criticize the ruling party or government leaders without fear?”

The 48-page report cites cases in which “Journalists have been suspended under government pressure, and radio stations threatened for hosting opposition members as guests or when panelists expressed views critical of the ruling party.” It adds “Radio show hosts in Jinja, eastern Uganda, in July 2015, and in Hoima, western Uganda, in April 2014, were suspended after Besigye (opposition presidential candidate) appeared on their shows.”

One of the 170 journalists interviewed by the HRW said “I think government intends to keep the people uninformed.” The anonymous journalist goes on to say “You see, uninformed people are easy to manipulate. Cases of intimidation are prevalent…. As journalists, we are forced to cover up. In the reporting you don’t hit the nail on top. You have to communicate carefully. In election season we see this very clearly.”

The Ugandan government and its security organs especially the police have received intense criticism and condemnation over the last few months given the way they have used “excessive force and brutality” with opponents of President Yoweri Museveni and the ruling party and their supporters.

Just last week, independent candidate Amama Mbabazi of The Democratic Alliance (TDA) voiced irritation after his radio appearance was blocked and his rally disrupted in Kotido and Kaabong respectively.

The former premier and longtime Museveni ally released a statement last week documenting incidents of his supporters being arrested, harassed, and made to disappear. And over the last few days reports and images emerged indicating one his aides Christopher Aine had been tortured to death. Subsequently, the editor of a local tabloid; Red Pepper was interrogated by the police for publishing the Aine’s purpoted picture and one Charles Rwomushana, the suspected source of the Image of ‘dead’ Aine has been arrested and detained incommunicado.

In a related development, over the weekend, reporters covering Presidential Candidate Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) were caught up in clashes between his supporters and the police and in the process their cameras and equipment was ruined.

HRW damning report follows that of Amnesty International last December which chided the Uganda for its police brutality against opposition candidates and their supporters.

“The Ugandan authorities must put an immediate end to the harassment and torture of political opponents and urgently, thoroughly and transparently investigate the use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators. Anyone found responsible for these violations must be brought to justice,” Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes said in December.

The Uganda police has repeatedly dismissed these allegations and claimed it is neutral in this election season.