Protests violently dispersed, while conditions for journalists sharply deteriorate

Peaceful assembly

On the evening of 13th August 2018, police used live ammunition to disperse crowds in Arua, who had gathered to support candidates at campaign rallies ahead of a by-election for a municipal Member of Parliament seat. As previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, the seat was left vacant following the assassination of ruling party MP Ibrahim Abiriga and his bodyguard in June 2018. It is unclear what instigated this reaction from security forces, but demonstrators responded by throwing stones at the officers, further escalating the violence. At least five people were injured in the chaos, while Yasin Kawuma, the driver of popular pop star turned opposition MP and fierce government critic Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, was shot dead.

Kyagulanyi and three other opposition MPs, Paul Mwiru, Gerald Karuhanga, and Francis Zaake, as well former MPs Kasiano Wadri and Michael Mabikke were detained following the violence. They were accused of blocking the presidential convoy while armed, and for attacking it.

Two days later, on 15th August, voters headed to the polls despite a heavy police presence in the city, eventually electing independent candidate Kasiano Wadri to Parliament. However, the following day, on 16th August, three lawmakers, including Wadri, and around a dozen other government critics were charged with treason for their role in the alleged attack on the presidential convoy. Opposition MPs Kyagulanyi and Zaake were also charged with unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition at the military court in Gulu.

In Kamwokya, a poor Kampala neighborhood which is Kyagulanyi's electoral stronghold, crowds gathered to protest his continued detention but anti-riot police used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators.

On the same day, 16th August, Kyagulanyi appeared in court handcuffed and badly bruised, allegedly unable to speak or walk due to injuries sustained while in custody. Initially during his detention, he had been denied access to lawyers for days, but was eventually charged in the presence of only two of his lawyers, who are also MPs, Mr Asuman Basalirwa and Mr Medard Sseggona. He was later transferred to Makindye Military Prison in Kampala. On 17th August, he was allowed to speak to his wife, lawyer, and a representative from the Ugandan Human Rights Commission, who reported that he had a “swollen face, was in pain and required support to walk. It was also observed that he had difficulty sitting and breathing”. Photos also emerged of a severely beaten MP Francis Zaake recovering in a hospital bed, after he was transferred there by police in uniform.

Protests continued on 19th August in Mityana, Francis Zaake's constituency, where police reportedly killed one demonstrator and injured five others. In Kampala, new protests broke out on Monday 20th August, which were met with a hard-handed response from the army and police.

President Museveni released a statement where he denounced the reports that Kyagulanyi was injured as “fake news,” and claimed that Zaake had escaped from police custody, despite ample evidence that the MP was still unable to leave his bed in the hospital. 

Ugandan soldiers accused of killing and forcefully evicting residents in Northern Uganda

In separate developments, in mid-July, 200 people from the northern Uganda village of Apaa traveled to the town of Gulu seeking safety, and camped at the offices of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. They accused Ugandan soldiers of killing three residents of Apaa, beating others, and burning over 800 homes since 2017, in an effort to designate the area as a wildlife reserve.

Association

On 9th July 2018, Uganda’s Electoral Commission suspended accreditation for Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU) to observe local council elections, in what critics decried as a means to obfuscate electoral processes. In a letter addressed to CCEDU, the commission expressed alleged concerns that CCEDU was conducting itself in a partisan manner and was thus in breach of the guidelines for voter education and other electoral activities.

Separately, on 6th August 2018, unidentified burglars broke into the offices of ISIS-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE) in Kampala and stole computer processors, internal and external hard drives, and cash. This was the latest in a long series of civil society office break-ins that have caused public outrage over inadequate and inconclusive police investigations despite available evidence such as CCTV footage.

Expression

As chaos [reported above in the peaceful assembly section] erupted in Arua on the evening of 13th August, NTV journalist Herbert Zziwa’s live broadcast of the protest abruptly went off as more gunfire ensued. He was reported missing until it was revealed that he and his cameraman Ronald Muwanga were detained at Arua Central Police Station. The two were released on bond on 14th August and charged with incitement of violence and malicious damage. They claimed they were tortured while in police custody.

In separate developments, on 27th June, local politician Keihwa Patrick Besigye allegedly assaulted Voice of Kigezi radio journalist Arinitwe Emmanuel at the station’s offices in Kabale. Angered over an embezzlement story that the journalist had earlier published, Besigye allegedly stormed into the studio, verbally abused, repeatedly slapped, and threatened to have Emmanuel fired over the story. Arinitwe had earlier covered a news story where Besigye; Kabale District Local Council 5 Chairperson, had been questioned by district councilors to explain what actions he had taken against the former Acting District Engineer, Mr. Kiganda James who was believed to have embezzled public funds.

Narrating the ordeal, Arinitwe Emmanuel told the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda):

”At 8:30 pm while I was in the studio, Mr. Keihwa stormed the studio and started ranting while hurling insults at me, why do you want to broadcast such a story, are you working with my political opponents to ruin my reputation…”

In yet a separate incident, on 13th July, police in Katakwi, eastern Uganda, arrested Kenneth Odere of NTV, Eddy Enuru of NBS TV, and Simon Emwamu of the Daily Monitor, while they were covering a demonstration by local mobile money operators against the newly introduced tax on their services. The journalists were asked to share their recorded material and reveal the organisers of the protest, which they declined. The police proceeded to arrest them for allegedly covering an illegal assembly.

On 17th July, Vision group journalist Ronald Kasasa was assaulted by a police officer while covering a demonstration in a Kampala suburb, sustaining injuries around the neck. Kasasa was later summoned to the police station on allegations of criminal defamation for a broadcast he aired on Bukedde Television where he accused the District Police Commander of Jinja Road Police Station of instructing officers to assault him. He lodged a formal complaint against the officer on 20th July.

Narrating the ordeal, Kasasa told HRJN-Uganda in an interview:

“I had just finished covering the demonstration when suddenly, a field force unit officer held my T-shirt around the neck and started pulling. I presented my Identity Card but he continued hurling insults at me. I sustained injuries around the neck. I don’t know the police officer’s name but I can identify his face.”

On 20th August, another case of attack on a journalist was reported by the Foreign Correspondents Association of Uganda, indicating that Reuters photojournalists James Akena was beaten and detained without charge as he was covering protests in downtown Kampala.

In what is becoming an apparent series of attacks on journalists, on 27th July, another Vision Group journalist Damba Wiziri was assaulted by the sub county chief of Rugarama in Sheema district; Amanya Jordan, while he was covering the local elections. Three days later, on 30th July, Damba was again beaten by three attackers while covering a demonstration by opposition supporters and told to delete the footage from his video camera. This attack happened as police officers, including Sheema District Police Commander Hillary Mukiza, watched but did not intervene. He sustained injuries around the neck, chest, and hands, and his professional equipment stolen. Damba lodged a formal complaint at Sheema Police Station on 1st August.

Condemning this, and the increased incidence of intimidation and assaults on journalists, HRNJ-Uganda National Coordinator, Mr. Robert Ssempala said:

“This unfortunate incident continues to mirror the numerous human rights violations in the form of intimidation, harassment and violence that media practitioner experience in their line of work that adversely continues to undermine the freedom of expression and media rights. We urge Journalists to unite and pursue justice for their victimized colleagues. I condemn in the strongest terms possible, the continued intimidation and harassment of journalists by private citizens and the state actors.”

In other unrelated events, on 10th August, the Attorney General of Uganda withdrew an appeal filed at the East African Court of Justice challenging the court’s decision to allow the Media Legal Defence Initiative and 19 other organisations to be joined as amici curiae (friends of Court). The broader case involves the late radio journalist Ronald Ssembuusi, who in 2014 began challenging Uganda’s use of criminal defamation under section 179 & 180 of the Penal Code after he was sentenced to one year in prison for defaming a former Chairman of Kalangala District, Daniel Kikoola.