KAMPALA, Uganda (AA) – The Ugandan government and ruling party officials have been blamed for intimidating and threatening journalists and activists, weeks before the country heads towards elections, according to a new Human Rights Watch report released Monday.
The report, titled “keep the people uninformed, pre-election threats to free expression and association in Uganda”, documents how some journalists and activists were facing increased threats as elections loom.
It noted that reporting accurately and fairly on all political sides while avoiding the government’s backlash was a difficult and often discouraging battle that limited media freedom and ultimately led to self-censorship among Ugandan journalists, particularly outside Kampala where wages were low and jobs remained scarce.
Addressing journalists in Kampala Monday, the watchdog’s Africa senior researcher, Maria Burnett, noted that press freedom in Uganda was deceptive. While print journalist’s working in English had relatively some freedom, Burnett said: “Radio journalists working in local languages whose listeners are based in rural areas, face harassment and threats from an array of government and party officials”.
The report cited the violators as Uganda Police Force, resident district commissioners who represent the president, internal security officials and the Uganda Communications Commission, the government broadcasting regulator.
“These officials determine what goes on there, the guests who are invited and the issues to be discussed,” Burnett said.
According to the watchdog, when guests or radio hosts make any statement deemed critical of the government, “journalists have received phone calls or visits from the government representatives, threatening them with firing [from their jobs] or suspension and closure of their media organization”.
Radio journalists also told Human Rights Watch that party representatives sometimes offered them bribes, trips and trainings in exchange for favorable coverage of the ruling party.
To mitigate the risks of forced closure or loss of government advertising, Burnett noted that radio stations sometimes charged the political opposition figures higher fees for paid slots.
Burnett said that fair elections required a level-playing field in which all candidates could freely campaign and voters could make informed decisions. “How can Uganda hold fair elections if the media and independent groups can’t criticize the ruling party or government leaders without fear?” she asked.
Government spokesman Shaban Bantariza, however, dismissed the report. “How come almost 60 percent of the incumbent members of the ruling party lost elections in the party primaries, if the government intended to keep the citizens uninformed?” Bantariza said.
Bantariza defended the government, saying all it wanted the media to do was inform people of its programs, as much as opposition presidential candidates wanted the public to know about their campaign issues.
He added that any intimidation or threat to the media might be by some party “enthusiasts”, which did not reflect the government’s policy. “We don’t support them, whether they belong to the ruling party, our supporters or not; their comments does not necessarily represent government policy decisions.”
Uganda will hold its presidential and parliamentary elections on Feb. 18 with eight candidates vying for the presidential seat.
The main contenders in the race are President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, as representative of his ruling National Resistance Movement party; Dr. Kiiza Besigye, who has challenged Museveni in the last three elections, will run for the Forum for Democratic Change; while Amama Mbabazi, Museveni’s longtime ally and former premier, will be a candidate for his Go Forward party.
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