Attacks on the Press 2002: Uganda

Uganda was the only country in Africa where a journalist was killed in 2002. Jimmy Higenyi, a student at the private journalism school United Media Consultants and Trainers, was shot by police while covering a rally of the opposition party Uganda People's Congress in the capital, Kampala, on January 12. The government had banned the gathering, and police officers trying to disperse the rally fired into the crowd, hitting Higenyi, who died instantly.

Despite Higenyi's death, Uganda continued to lead the region in the number of licensed and operating radio stations. Although not all of the more than 100 licensed stations were on the air, those that were broadcasting expanded beyond their urban bases to other parts of the country. New community-based stations were launched in 2002, including one geared to rural farmers that focuses on weather and the environment.

Call-in talk shows, dubbed ekimeeza (table talk), have become a regular, and immensely popular, feature of FM radio. The format is fairly uniform: Invited guests gather at a pub-
lic place outside the studio--usually a pub or restaurant--and debate a topic selected by the moderator. Members of the public are encouraged to participate by either going to the venue or calling. In December, Information Minister Basoga Nsadhu declared ekimeeza
illegal, saying broadcast licenses did not extend to bars. Radio stations ignored the ban
and threatened to sue the state.

Pornography remained a source of concern across the country, with citizens and Parliament members decrying minors' easy access to it. The government interrogated two editors and the circulation manager of at least one newspaper, Bukedde, for nearly five hours over the publication of "seminude" photos of beauty contestants. No charges were filed, but Uganda's Penal Code prohibits "trafficking in obscenities."

Of more consequence for the media was the fallout from the country's 2001 presidential election. After nearly defeating President Yoweri Museveni in a bitterly disputed poll, Col. Kiiza Besigye fled the country, saying he feared for his life. From his self-imposed exile in the United States, Besigye became a regular guest on Uganda's popular call-in radio shows, during which he repeatedly accused Museveni's government of graft and vote rigging. During one notable interview with the Voice of Africa on August 17, Besigye threatened to resort to "untraditional" methods if his efforts to get fresh elections through constitutional means fail.

The backlash was immediate. On September 16, an official of Museveni's nonparty (all political parties are banned in Uganda) National Resistance Movement, Ofwono Opondo, warned radio stations against airing further interviews with Besigye and threatened them with prosecution under the new Anti-Terrorism Act of 2002, which was signed into law in May. The act, which empowers the Cabinet to designate an organization as terrorist, explicitly categorizes rebel groups as such. "Besigye has inadvertently declared war on the Government," Opondo stated, adding that anyone who helps Besigye "spread his propaganda ... comes under suspicion of aiding terrorism, and the anti-terrorism law will apply." Those convicted of violating the act face up to 10 years' imprisonment or death by hanging.

On October 10, police officers raided the country's largest independent daily newspaper, The Monitor, manhandled staff, seized equipment, and then closed the publication for one week. The raid was prompted by a story about an army helicopter that had allegedly crashed in northern Uganda. Army spokesman Maj. Shaban Bantariza denied the report, and Information Minister Basoga Nsadhu accused the paper of promoting crimes by rebel groups.

Although it was closed, the paper continued to publish online. On October 17, the print version reappeared with a front-page apology to the government. That same day, Nsadhu announced that "the media has to be cautious" on "matters of national security." Soon after, the Kenyan Nation Newspaper group, which owns a majority share in The Monitor, announced plans to strengthen the paper's fact-finding and research procedures.



January 12

Jimmy Higenyi, United Media Consultants and Trainers


For full details on this case, click here.

James Akena, New Vision
Archie Luyimbazi, WBS Television
Andrew Mujema, WBS Television



Akena, of the state-owned daily newspaper New Vision, and Luyimbazi and Mujema, both from the television station WBS, were detained while covering a rally organized by the opposition Uganda Peoples' Congress. The government had banned the gathering, but the three were released after a few hours. During the same rally, one journalist, Jimmy Higenyi, was killed when the police violently dispersed the crowd.

July 25

Joseph Were, The Monitor
David Kibirige, The Monitor
Charles Onyango-Obbo, The Monitor



Onyango-Obbo, managing editor of the independent daily The Monitor; Were, an editor at the paper; and Kibirige, an investigative reporter at the paper, were summoned to appear at the police's Criminal Investigations Division.

On July 16, acting assistant inspector general of police E.N.B. Mbiringi ordered the journalists to be questioned about an April 4 story alleging that the Rwandan government had written a report accusing Uganda of training dissidents to fight the Rwandan government and had given a copy to the British government.

The news story directly contradicted a different report authored by the Rwanda/Uganda Joint Verification and Investigation Committee, a government-appointed body charged with defusing growing tensions between the two countries, both of which have accused the other of training and harboring rebel groups.

Were, Kibirige, and Onyango-Obbo were interrogated for three hours on July 26 and released after signing statements. An officer informed them that police were continuing to investigate the matter, but the journalists had not been charged by year's end.

September 16

All journalists


Director of information for Uganda's ruling National Resistance Movement, Ofwono Opondo, warned radio stations against airing interviews with Col. Kizza Besigye and threatened them with prosecution under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2002, which was signed into law in May. The act, which empowers the Cabinet to designate an organization as terrorist, explicitly categorizes rebel groups as such.

After nearly defeating President Yoweri Museveni in a bitterly disputed poll, Besigye fled the country, saying he feared for his life. From his self-imposed exile in the United States, Besigye became a regular guest on Uganda's popular call-in radio shows, during which he repeatedly accused Museveni's government of graft and vote rigging. During one notable interview with the Voice of Africa on August 17, Besigye threatened to resort to "untraditional" methods if his efforts to get fresh elections through constitutional means fail, prompting Opondo's warning against further interviews.

"Besigye has inadvertently declared war on the Government," Opondo stated, adding that anyone who helps Besigye "spread his propaganda ... comes under suspicion of aiding terrorism, and the Anti-Terrorism Law will apply." Those convicted of violating the act face up to 10 years' imprisonment or death by hanging.

September 27

Radio Wa


Catholic Church-owned Radio Wa, located on the outskirts of the town of Lira in northern Uganda, was attacked by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in the early morning. According to news reports, the rebels used axes to break into the church complex, which houses the station. They then poured gas on the walls and set the church and radio station ablaze, killing two people.

Radio Wa director Rev. John Fraser, quoted in the state-owned daily New Vision, said that because the rebels headed straight for the studio after breaking into the complex, the station was the main target. Fraser also said that the station, which was destroyed in the fire, lost equipment worth about US$70,000.

Shortly before the attack, the station's staff, fearing that the LRA would target their studio, had asked for government protection. Though about a dozen troops were stationed outside the church before the attack, all but one fled when the rebels approached.

A source at the independent daily Monitor said that Radio Wa was probably not attacked for its coverage of the LRA, but that the group has voiced anger over how the Ugandan media in general portray them. The LRA has since threatened to hit other radio stations in the nearby town of Lira. The rebels, who are fighting to turn Uganda into a fundamentalist Protestant republic, have been battling the government for the last 16 years.

March 31, 2003 12:01 PM ET |

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