Wednesday, 22 May 2013

When a messenger becomes the target in Uganda

May 20, marked a dark day in the recent history of Uganda’s media. Two daily newspapers, Daily Monitor and Red Pepper and two radio stations Kfm and Dembe fm were closed down as police searched their premises for a letter allegedly written by a high ranking Uganda soldier calling on the state agencies to investigate claims of assassination of government officials opposed to a succession plan that would allow President Yoweri Museveni’s son to take over the presidency. Museveni has been in power since 1986.

Daily Monitor first published Gen. David Sejusa’s (also widely known as Tinyefuza) letter on May 7. The following day the commander of Defence Forces, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, who the letter alleges is one of the assassins’ targets, castigated Tinyefuza for using a wrong forum to disclose such allegations. Other government officials including the Minister of Defence denied there is such a succession plan.

Days before the May 20 police raid, Daily Monitor journalists had been questoned by the police to reveal the source of the story on Gen. Tinyefuza's letter. The journalists refused to give their source citing the law. Media houses get news tips from sources who should be protected always to maintain trust.

Instead of investigating claims raised by Gen Tinyefuza (Sejusa) letter, the Uganda police are busy turning newsroom drawers upside down. Doesn’t it defeat logic that you should even search for a letter whose author has admitted authoring? In any case, the content of the letter is already public knowledge. Why search for source of original letter? Is there something that meets more than eyes can see in this Gen Tinyefuza letter affair? And above all, why stop media operations because you’re searching for a mere letter for over 72 hours and counting?

One of the Uganda journalists protesting police raid on Monitor newspaper
Media experts have argued that the police are instead abusing the law to close down media houses under the pretext that they are crime scenes. In the first place, the same government dismissed Gen Tinyefuza’s critical letter as not serious and not worth giving attention. But the actions of the same government on media houses tell a different story.

The closure of media houses is inflicting huge costs on their business standings. More importantly, it sends a chilling message to the press that “watch out we are powerful and can shut you down and the state will continue running normally”. Isn’t this abuse of state power? This is intimidation of the media.

Political analysts say the closure the media houses have cast a shadow of doubt over the government’s professed commitment to respect media freedoms and the freedom of expression in Uganda. But, the country’s minister of information, Karoro Okurut has defended the actions of her government arguing that they are within the confines of the law. The police had acquired a search warrant from a lower court before raiding the media houses.

However, the search warrant did not include shutting down the media houses. To give their action some semblance of legitimacy, the police declared the premises of the above media houses a crime scene. As I write this, it is the third day since the media houses were closed and the police seem to be moving in circles saying they are still “searching” the premises. The police spokeswoman told reporters that they will keep the search for the General’s letter as until they get what they want.

But, eyebrows are being raised if the said police search is indeed about the General’s letter since the letter is already public knowledge. The premises of Red Pepper, Uganda’s tabloid newspaper, which complied  by handing the army General’s  press releases as demanded by the police; are up to now still closed.

Whatever the case, the police’s actions indicate an assault on media freedom and Constitutional right of free expression. They are punishing the messenger instead of appropriately responding to the message.  It is a regressive step in Uganda’s democracy. Yet, a free, independent and vibrant media is crucial in any democratic society. The freedom of the press is part of a wider fundamental freedom of speech and expression which underpins all other human rights and democratic freedoms. We need a free and independent press.

Mubatsi Asinja Habati

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