Uganda has dropped 43 places to 139th position in press freedom rankings, Reporters Without Borders announced last week with the release of its 10th annual Press Freedom Index. The news comes at a time of renewed brutality by security forces against journalists covering Ugandan opposition rallies.
by Marlies Pilon, Kampala
Uganda is explicitly mentioned in the publication Press Freedom Index 2011/12 as being among the countries with the most dramatic fall in press freedom. It is being attributed to an increased government crackdown on mass unrest. “The year 2011 will not be forgotten by Ugandan media,” the report states. "Journalists covering demonstrations were often the victims of indiscriminate police repression or were targeted by police who did not want them covering the crackdown.”
The announcement of the publication coincides with an attempted shooting by security members of a Ugandan reporter who was covering an opposition rally in Namungoona, a suburb of the capital Kampala. Isaac Kasamani, a photojournalist for Uganda’s independent Daily Monitor newspaper, barely avoided a bullet as he was bending down to take a picture of a teargas canister fired by the police to disperse a gathered crowd.
“As I was about to take my picture, one of the occupants of the police van opened the passenger door and shot at me. He then immediately closed the door and the van sped from the scene. I know my occupation as a journalist comes with a lot of risks, but it was very intimidating,” said Kasamani.
Last week, three other Ugandan journalists were injured as they covered the arrest of opposition politicians, according to Human Rights Watch Uganda. The victims were Michael Kigozi (Radio One), Hadijah Mwanje (HRNJ-Uganda) and Nasser Kayanja (Radio Simba).
“The police argue that they cannot identify journalists from other people while executing their duty and encourages them to wear press jackets. Unfortunately, journalists with press jackets have attracted more police wrath than a bee to honey,” Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, Program Coordinator of Human Rights Network for Journalists Uganda wrote this week in a letter published in the independent Daily Monitor newspaper.
Security forces led an unprecedented crackdown on journalists during the last Walk to Work demonstrations, a series of protests led by the opposition against the high cost of living in Uganda. Several journalists were beaten, arrested, and shot at. The attacks appear to have been organized to prevent journalists from documenting the brutal attacks on protestors.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni vilified both local and international media covering the Walk to Work protests in a letter published last March in the state-owned New Vision paper. “The media houses, both local and international, such as Al-Jazeera, BBC, NTV, The Daily Monitor, etc that cheer on these irresponsible people are enemies of Uganda’s recovery and they will have to be treated as such,” Museveni wrote.
Crackdown word of the year
Reporters Without Borders named Uganda together with Vietnam, China, Azerbaijan, Chili and the United States as countries where “pro-democracy movements […] were ruthlessly suppressed”. The organization also emphasized that on a global level: “Crackdown was the word of the year in 2011”.
Of the 179 countries on the press freedom index, Djibouti, Malawi and Uganda saw the biggest drops. Niger (29th) made the biggest improvement by climbing 75 places. Two African countries, Cape Verde and Namibia, reached the report’s top 20.