By Mohamed Hassim Keita/Africa Research Associate
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda lashed out at private broadcasters last week, accusing them of unethical reporting. The comments come in the midst of two important, ongoing developments: mounting public criticism of Museveni's policies and the government's criminal prosecutions of six journalists for their coverage.
"You rarely inform. You rarely educate. You entertain, yes. But you mostly lie and incite. I have so much evidence to prove all this," Museveni declared Friday while speaking at a dinner of Uganda's National Association of Broadcasters, according to the state-owned daily New Vision. The Office of the President's Media Centre quoted Museveni as saying that authorities would take "very serious" steps against media outlets seen as inciting public discontent with the government. "When you try to imitate the Western media," he was quoted as saying, "you will run into problems."
Museveni, a former guerilla commander in power since 1986, is expected to seek re-election in 2011.
Rachel Mugarura Mutana, who runs the independent Uganda Radio Network, has heard this all before. "He's said it more than once," she said. Fourteen months ago, in fact, the president singled out Monitor, Uganda's leading private daily, during his annual address to parliament. Waving a copy of an article critical of the government's dealings with an international investor, Museveni accused the paper of undermining national interests and said it had "no right to damage our future."
In some respects, radio journalists would seem an unlikely target for the president's most recent salvo. Local journalist Charles Bichachi told CPJ that some irresponsible statements could be heard on live radio debate programs, but he said the president's criticism was largely unwarranted as it pertained to news coverage. Mutana said that while radio stations offer people forums to express themselves, they lag behind newspapers and television in current affairs coverage. This is due to financial constraints (which tend to limit current affairs coverage in favor of inexpensive music programming) and the relatively few journalists adequately trained in radio journalism, she said. Nevertheless, a call-in radio program questioning police handling of unsolved murder cases led officers to interrogate Ssubi FM Editor-in-Chief Bashir Kazibwe twice last month, according to the local press freedom group Human Rights Network for Journalists.
Museveni's comments come amid public criticism of a government policy proposal on land and political rights in Uganda's oil-rich western region. The criticism stems from Monitor's publication of a leaked presidential memo proposing to restrict political and land rights to the ethnic Banyoro, whose traditional kingdom is the site of intense oil exploration.
The government did not dispute the contents of the memo, although spokeswoman Kabakumba Matsiko told local and international media that the document was misrepresented "as if it was a final decision." Monitor acknowledged some errors and published a correction. Nevertheless, police have interrogated Managing Editor Daniel Kalinaki, Sunday Monitor Editor Henry Ochieng, and reporter Emmanuel Gyezaho on accusations of "uttering a false document," according to defense lawyer James Nangwala.
Two other Monitor journalists were arrested recently on criminal charges related to their work. Moses Akena was detained on August 10 and charged with criminal defamation in connection with a corruption story. On July 21, Inspector General of Government Faith Mwonda had Monitor photojournalist Stephen Otage arrested for taking photographs of her outside a courthouse. Police seized Otage's camera and charged him with "criminal trespass." Mwonda is also the plaintiff in a criminal libel lawsuit against four Monitor journalists who raised questions about her salary in 2007.
In this context, many local journalists have expressed fears of a renewed government crackdown on the media in the run-up to elections in 2011. "We're anticipating things to heat up in the next few months especially as [Museveni] prepares for elections," said local journalist Bichachi. Mutana of Uganda Radio Network described the president's remarks as a proverbial cracking of the whip ahead of the election cycle.
One award-winning political editor, who suffered the whip of repression four years ago and currently faces at least 21 criminal charges in relation to his coverage, said he is undeterred. "I write what I think," Andrew Mwenda told CPJ. "I leave it to the government to think about what they will do."
UPDATED: We corrected Henry Ochieng's title after a commentator pointed out that he is Sunday Monitor editor.
Mohamed Keita is advocacy coordinator for CPJ's Africa Program. He regularly gives interviews in French and English to international news media on press freedom issues in Africa and has participated in several panels. Follow him on Twitter: @africamedia_CPJ.