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Ugandan photographers take heat after fire at royal tombs

A Ugandan soldier quells a protest after fire destroyed the tombs of Bagandan kings. (Reuters)

It seemed like déjà vu. Another major protest erupts in Uganda and journalists face the wrath of authorities and the public alike. Tensions between the government and the traditional kingdom of the Baganda, the largest ethnic group based in central Uganda, flared again Tuesday evening after a fire of unknown origin ravaged the tombs of traditional kings, a UNESCO World Heritage site on Kasubi Hill near the capital, Kampala. Last September, a number of journalists were attacked or harassed while covering deadly clashes between the government and Baganda protesters.

This week, journalists told CPJ, soldiers shot in the air to disperse Baganda protestors who demanded an immediate investigation into the cause of the fire. As journalist and blogger Rosebell Kagumire put it, “this relationship between President Yoweri Museveni’s government and the Buganda kingdom is far from rosy and this has already given fertile ground for many to think there was some foul play.” The torched mausoleum, built in 1882, contained the tombs of four ancient kings along with cultural relics. The tomb represented a major spiritual center for the kingdom.

Moses Lemisa, who covered protests on Wednesday for Uganda’s largest vernacular daily, Bukedde, suffered a hand injury and saw his camera destroyed. He described it as one of the hardest days of his five-year career as a freelance photojournalist. Lemisa said he was injured when a security agent of the Presidential Guard Brigade struck him with a gun as he was taking photographs of security forces firing live rounds to disperse protestors. (Authorities said three people were shot dead in the clashes.) Despite the injury, Lemisa said, he continued working only to be assaulted later by demonstrators who destroyed his camera. Benjamin Ssebaggala, another freelance photojournalist who works with Bukedde, said he was struck by stones as he tried to take photos of the protestors. Bukkede Photo Editor Herbert Lemansi said the journalists were targeted by protesters because of their affiliation with a media outlet perceived as pro-government.

It was familiar scene for frontline journalists such as Lemisa and Ssebagala, who also carried their cameras into deadly September 2009 street riots. That time, violence erupted after the government attempted to block Bagandan King Ronald Muwenda Mutebi from visiting Kayunga County in northern Kampala amid tensions between the government and the kingdom over land and political rights.

Ssebaggala recounted how a police officer seized his camera that day. He eventually got his equipment back, but Lemisa was not so lucky. His camera at the time, also a Nikon D8, was destroyed by demonstrators as he took photos of them. “Protestors don’t want journalists to take their photos. Once they see their photos in newspapers, they fear the government will come after them. Sometimes I cannot blame those people who damaged my camera,” he said. Lemisa managed to replace his old D8 with a new one after spending 2 million Ugandan shillings (the equivalent of US$ $1,000), he said. 

The government reacted to the September 2009 riots by closing down radio stations, including Central Broadcasting Service, a prominent broadcaster with close ties to the Buganda Kingdom. The station remains closed today. Alex Nsuburu, a former producer for the banned radio station, told CPJ that station staffers have been frustrated, especially by their inability to cover this week’s fire and subsequent clashes. “The [burnt] tomb is considered by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site. Not reporting on something with such local and global significance is a great loss.” Nsuburu fears the government will use the latest developments as an excuse to keep CBS closed indefinitely. “They blocked us last year claiming we incited people to riot. But look at [this week]: There were some serious demonstrations on the street. President Museveni was even blocked by protestors from visiting the site. Whether we broadcast or not—people are reacting,” he said.

Godfrey Mutabazi, chairman of the Ugandan Broadcasting Council, disagreed. “I don’t think this terrible episode will complicate the situation with CBS,” he told CPJ. “In fact, they have stalled the process themselves by taking this matter to court, instead of trying to sit and negotiate.” In December, CBS employees sued the government demanding an apology and compensation for their closure. In turn, the government called on the CBS management to apologize, relocate its studios, and drop the court case against them, according to local reports. Nsuburu believes government officials want an out-of-court settlement since “they know they are in the wrong. They did not follow proper procedures and closed us down with excessive force and no official notice.”

March 18, 2010 6:34 PM ET | | Comments (9)

Comments

As a Ugandan in the diaspora, am deeply following developments in Uganda. However, I would urge people ti use critical thinking in this matter.
My evaluation of the burning of the Kasubi Tombs is that with the elections coming up in 2011, the government is smart enough not to do anything that stupid.
However, there are other people who are interested in creating chaos for political gain. Knowing the relationship between the central government and the Buganda Kingdom, these people calculate that the Baganda will suspect government involvement.

To a trained mind,THERE IS A THIRD FORCE, an enemy of both the Central Government and the Kingdom of Buganda. Look out for this force which is bent on creating chaos in Uganda.

It is a sad thing that a historic place like Kasubi Tombs could fall prey to people with their private agenda.
By the the way Am not a fun of the Central Government either. It has many issues to set right.

Fred J. Kakete

Virginia Beach VA

Typical destruction present govt did in Northern Uganda...no 3rd force...wake-up 24 years later some of you people!

"the Bagandan."
The people of Buganda are called Baganda not Bagandan please correct it.
Otherwise good job covering an aspect of the riot that we hadn't really know.

As a person from Eastern Uganda living in Kampala. I can frankly tell you that the central government hate the Buganda Kingdom and they love this divide and rule methods. The Pickup seen living the crime scene was definitely a government vehicle. We Ugandans are not stupid. We see what is going on and some of the people assigned these missions are our brothers/sisters but am lucky for not being a Muganda. The Central government will not rest until it destroys your kingdom. Museveni is a Life President whether you want it or not.

But it is on official record that the ruling NRM government robbed at gun point Uganda Commercial Bank ( now StanBic Bank), Luweero branch when they were still rebels in 1980s. They shared the spoil and bought more guns to let more blood. a thief is always a thief and they can not deny this. Remember Kashilingi was given an army promotion for burning Bulange, the Seat of the Buganda Kingdom in Mengo. How disgusting! But Buganda shall prevail. Remember our fore fathers ran away from the palace in Bunyoro kingdom after demanding for freedom and were about to be executed. they came to this land where they established common values- peace,tolerance,diginity,equality for all,including gays and lesbians;propserity, and the rule of law. I repeat- Buganda shall prevail. Now this government wants a death penalty for gays,when Kabaka Mwanga whose tomb they burnt never killed gays

Otako ofampa, Kampala

Some people have what is called selective perception. In everything said they hear what they want to hear even if it has not been said. In every situation, they see what they have chosen to see, even if it is not there.
By the way, I have seen Uganda politics for more than 24 years, and I repeat that as for the burning of the Kasubi Tombs, THERE IS A THIRD FORCE one can adamantly refuse to see that, but to a critical thinker, it is there.

Fred Kakete

Now, if M7's government ain't responsible for the Kasubi terrorism as Fred J. Kakete seems to suggest, who is then responsible for the subsequent barabaric shootings and killings of unarmed civilians within the courtyard of the mausoleum and outside it?? Do you want to tell us the armed goon we see in the picture above terrorising Ugandans is a rebel or an infiltrator from a 'neighboring country'??? If they are not responsible for the Kasubi tombs torching, why were they not ashamed of the subsequent killings by their own PGB?? Afterall, the army spokesman said afterwards that those most barabaric shootings and killings that M7's soldiers did a good job! This is sheer insanity and anyone who defends it must as well be totally insane!!

I think the gvt did not put ahand in burning of kasubi.People only consider the past fall in friendship of both, and people put thi too ;political which ithink can cause alot of problems to the BAGANDA and uganda as awhole.

I think museveni burnt the tombs althuogh not for political reasons. He can easily win any elections without the buganda vote and rule for ever. I think the reason is his increasing frustration with buganda's "sturbonness" failing to succumb to his manouvers in order to peacefully be a life president. They(baganda)must therefore suffer. It could also be his long time psychological problems with buganda(hence the land bill and CBS closure). I hope he prevails.....otherwise uganda is on a free fall.


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