President Yoweri Museveni’s government has for the past several months been using a range of tactics to coerce and intimidate certain - often critical - media and increase its influence over others in a campaign to control news and information in the run-up to a presidential election in 50 days’ time, Reporters Without Borders said today.
"The campaign for the 23 February election, which began on 14 December, is supposed to be fair and free of threats and violence, but this is not the case," the press freedom organisation said. "The government’s obvious efforts to control the press and restrict free speech are undermining the democratic image it tries to project. They show it fears a free press and is not prepared to respect the democratic rules if it thinks it could thereby lose power."
Amid mounting political tension, legal action has been the government’s preferred strategy for combatting news media that have not hesitated to criticise it. The latest episode in its campaign of intimidation was the 13 December arrests of Weekly Observer editor James Tumusiime and one of his reporters, Semujju Ibrahim Nganda, on charges of inciting sectarianism, for which they face up to five years in prison.
They were held for several hours by the Kampala police and interrogated about a report on 1 December that blamed Gen. Museveni and two other army generals from the same ethnic group for the decisions to arrest opposition leader Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) on his return from exile and then keep him in detention.
As part of the government campaign to discredit Besigye, the police harassed the independent Daily Monitor for a week in November and threatened to close it down. Around 20 armed policemen raided the newspaper’s offices shortly before midnight on 17 November after the publication of its latest issue, which contained FDC publicity.
A Daily Monitor employee, Lawrence Nsereko, was beaten up on 29 December by two members of the ruling National Resistance Movement who were enraged to see Nsereko remove a Museveni poster that had been pasted on a display stand where the newspaper shows advertisement.
One of the Daily Monitor’s leading journalists, Andrew Mwenda, is meanwhile facing a possible five-year prison sentence on a charge of sedition for hosting a programme on Radio 93.3 KFM about the death of Sudan’s former rebel leader John Garang in a helicopter crash. The radio was closed down for a week in mid-August.
On 23 November, on the eve of the start of Besigye’s trial by court martial, the government banned Uganda’s radio stations from broadcasting any debates or talk-shows about it on the grounds that commenting on an ongoing trial was prohibited by legislation designed to guarantee the "right to a fair hearing."
Hours after the ban was announced, armed men surrounded the studios of Radio Simba after dark 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 government has been using other means to influence editors and journalists. Museveni recently approved the appointment of Brig. Noble Mayombo, permanent secretary of the defence minister and former head of military intelligence, as chairman of the board of the state-owned New Vision, Uganda’s biggest-selling daily. The government also chooses which journalists are worthy of accreditation to its newly-created communication unit.
Finally, the government has strengthened its hold over The Red Pepper - a sensationalist tabloid weekly often used to attack the opposition - by providing it with 270 million shillings (125,000 euros) in financing.