Authorities fail to investigate break-ins targeting human rights organisations

Association

On 9th February 2018, nine unidentified individuals broke into the Kampala office of Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), a human rights organisation. The two guards on duty were beaten with iron bars and batons and sustained severe injuries. The intruders were blocked from accessing senior management offices by a heavy metal door, and did not steal any of the electronic equipment readily available in the reception area and resource centre.

HRAPF’s office was previously broken into in May 2016, resulting in the death of the guard on duty. To date, no one has been held accountable for the intrusion or for the murder. Rather, the police classified the incident as a random attack. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, in the last five years, over 30 civil society organisations have had their offices broken into. Despite promises by police to investigate, few of the perpetrators have been held accountable, even in cases where evidence, such as video footage from security cameras, has been available.

On 12th February, HRAPF staff demonstrated in front of a police station in Kampala to demand the police reports and information on the investigations into both office break-ins.

To that end, Frontline Defenders has also urged the government to:

“Carry out an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation into the break-in at HRAPF’s offices, with a view to publishing the results and bringing those responsible to justice in accordance with international standards [and] consult HRAPF on their physical and psychological security needs in order to assess the most appropriate protection measures to be taken”.

Expression

According to the Human Rights Defenders Network, Kulihoshi Musikami Pecos, an exiled Congolese human right activist and Executive Director of the Foundation People for Peace and Defense of Human Rights, a refugee-led organisation based in Kampala, was abducted on 14th February 2018 by unknown individuals. He was found a day later at the Old Kampala police station. It is unclear what charges have been brought against him, if any. He was released a week later on bond.

The activist has been vocal in denouncing the scandal around cases of fraud and misuse of funds by public officials - funds that were intended for Uganda’s 1.4 million refugees.

Copies of the Red Pepper, a popular tabloid, were back on newsstands as of 29th January, after the editorial staff and directors were pardoned by President Museveni. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the newspaper's offices were raided, production halted, and some staff detained for two months after publishing a story alleging a plot by Uganda to topple Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Eight staff have since been charged with libel, computer misuse and publishing a story that compromises national security. The trial was still ongoing at the time of writing.

Five unidentified men dressed in military camouflage seized investigative journalist Charles Etukuri from the state-owned New Vision newspaper on 13th February outside his office in Kampala, days after he published an investigation linking the Internal Security Organisation and Chief of Military Intelligence to the death of a Finnish businessman at a Kampala hotel on 5th February 2018.

Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda's Robert Sempala asserted that:

“There is an escalation of attacks on journalists because of their work, which is an affront to freedom of the media and rights of the journalists in Uganda. There are better legally acceptable ways of causing arrest than resorting to kidnap and closure of media houses as is being evidenced lately. Charles should be produced to the courts of law to face justice if he committed any offences or be released unconditionally.”

Etukuri was held incommunicado for several days, while various security agencies refused to comment or denied any connection to his arrest. On 19th February, Etukuri was released and brought back to the New Vision premises after a high court in Kampala ordered his court appearance on 26th February. This was after a petition was made by the newspaper’s lawyers requesting that he be immediately release. Speaking to New Vision, Etukiri recounted his abduction, including how the officers illegally interrogated him and demanded that he reveal his sources and explain his involvement in the case.

On 13th February 2018, the resident district commissioner of Gulu District in northern Uganda recommended the closure of Radio Maria, a Catholic media house, on allegations that it was causing disunity among the people. The allegations concern the broadcasting of live Sunday masses by Reverend Father Charles Onen. Similarly, Chowoo Willy, a journalist and news editor with Choice FM in Gulu, was arrested on 12th February and charged with criminal libel for allegedly posting an audio recording of the Reverend on Facebook.

On 19th February 2018, prosecutors withdrew charges against Lira-based Rhino FM Programmes Director Augustine Okello after nearly five years in court. Okello was arrested on 13th July 2011 in Lira District and held incommunicado for more than two weeks. He suspects that his arrest was linked to a tribute song to former Ugandan President Milton Obote – ousted by President Museveni in 1986 – frequently played on Rhino FM. Okello was initially charged with treason in 2011, but this was later amended to "abuse of inferiors" in October 2017, under Section 141 of the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces Act (2005).

Uganda moved from the category of 'Not Free' to 'Partly Free' in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index. The Washington-based NGO cited the resilience of the media sector and the willingness of journalists, bloggers, and citizens to voice their opinions as major factors in the shift. Nevertheless, attacks against media houses and individual journalists remain common and often occur with impunity. Uganda is the third worst jailer of journalists in Africa, according to the Committee to Protect Journalist's 2017 census of imprisoned journalists.