Reporters Without Borders protested to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni today after the country’s privately-owned radio stations were threatened with closure if they broadcast debates or talk-shows about the trial of opposition leader Kizza Besigye, which has just begun.
Expressing its full support for the radio stations, the press freedom organisation said they could not ignore a major national event, no matter how embarrassing it was for the government.
“It is absurd to ban discussion of a subject the entire country is talking about,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Gagging public debate has never been an effective way to deal with unrest. We call on the government to rescind this decision and, like us, to trust the Kampala radio stations to cover the ongoing political crisis in professional manner.”
The government issued the ban on 23 November, on the eve of the start of Besigye’s trial by court martial. “A radio station that participates in airing views or messages that have the potential to lead to disorder in the country will be regarded as an accomplice to plans to foment disorder,” said information minister Nsaba Buturo, citing legislation that bans commenting on an ongoing trial in order to guarantee the “right to a fair hearing.”
Hours after the ban was announced, armed men surrounded the studios of Radio Simba looking for opposition activist Muwanba Kivumbi, who had been invited to come and be interviewed. He was arrested on his arrival at the radio station.
The head of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Besigye returned from exile in South Africa last month with a view to taking part in next March’s presidential election. He was arrested almost immediately on charges of treason and terrorism because of his alleged support for guerrilla movements. He is now being tried in secret by court martial and, along with 22 other members of his party, faces a possible death sentence. He has also been charged with the alleged rape of a woman in 1997, which he categorically denies.
Uganda’s radio stations and print media have gained a reputation for independence since the government loosened its control of the media in the early 1990s, but their news coverage is level-headed and the popularity of interactive talk-shows and live public debates known as “ebimeeza” is due in large part to their respect for the rules of journalistic balance and the need to air all political views. As a result, the privately-owned media have won the public’s respect and have defended themselves effectively in the past.