NEWS: Journalism in Uganda: ¨working in a crowd of lions¨

 Paula Rivas | Uganda Correspondant

On Monday, May 20, 2013, Ugandan police raided the offices of at least two newspapers in Kampala, Uganda following reports published in the newspapers that President Yoweri Museveni (who has been in power since 1986) is allegedly grooming his son to succeed him at the 2016 elections.

One of Uganda’s leading newspaper, The Daily Monitor, and another newspaper, Red Pepper, published a confidential letter, allegedly written by army General David Sejusa, calling for an investigation into allegations of a plot “to assassinate people who disagree with this so-called family project of holding onto power in perpetuity,¨ BBC reported.

Following the abrupt shut down of the newspapers, two radio stations have also been taken off air, (reported the state-owned newspaper, New Vision).

According to an article published in BBC Focus Africa, The Daily Monitor Managing Director Alex Assimwe said; “They must be under instructions. It is horrifying that in this day and age you should employ all these methods – shut down a media house to get to a document.¨

The Daily Monitor is an independent daily frequently criticized by Museveni as biased against him. Sam Lawino, a reporter of the Northern Region for The Daily Monitor) said that just as Monday proved to be show, under the grip of the state, Ugandan media has been a ¨tool of destruction.¨

Today, the Ugandan government has found yet another clever way of maintaining a control over news besides physical intimidation:  tightening the rules regarding the media and freedom of speech, making it impossible for journalists to cover stories that impact the community.

¨Who are we working for? The voiceless or are we working for those that have a voice?¨Questioned Lawino.

Lawino recalled seeing communities of Ugandans being uprooted from their homes by the government, under the orders of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, dropped up in truckloads in remote areas of Uganda, to start their lives over. ¨these peoples only belonging is their land, and now they are throwing them all over the place, telling them to start again with nothing. What can I do? I am watching my own people suffer and I can´t do a thing about it.¨

Lawino travelled to the villages of Uganda’s northern Kitgum district to see the spreading epidemic of the ¨nodding disease¨ (which causes wastage of the brain tissue and violent seizures.) This disease targets the most vulnerable population: children. The cause of the nodding disease remains unknown, and a cure is not yet found. ¨I remember hearing mothers cry out, watching their children die before their eyes, and the rest of the world close their eyes, ¨ recalled Lawino.

Since Ugandan media was hesitating to report on it, last year, Lawino along with a handful of other Ugandan reporters travelled to the United States and Canada to work with the media to bring the story of ¨nodding disease¨ to light through outlets such as CNN, BBC and CBC.  He spent a month in Washington D.C. where he met with President Barack Obama and said to him ¨we need to understand the conflicts of the whole of Africa, we the media, need help.¨

According to Lawino, the biggest struggle facing Ugandan journalists today are state agents and military agents. ¨They think all issues are military related and do not understand the Ugandan context, like issues of human rights, freedom of expression,¨ he said.

He went on to say that the destructive cocktail of corruption and politics seep through Ugandan media leaving it in the hands of the wrong people.¨ The media here is not free, at The Daily Monitor, for example, we now have extremists working here. The former bureau chief of the Daily Monitor is an NRA [National Resistance Army] member!¨

Not only are important topics censored in Ugandan media, but the safety of Ugandan journalists themselves is being questioned.  The Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda (HRNJ-U) had released a report on the safety and security of journalists, showing the range of threats against them, including restrictive legal regime, impunity, lack of professionalism among security agencies, and infiltration.

Other threats against journalists include ¨impersonations, use of hate speech by politicians, lack of minimum wage, failure to understand the role of media and intensified targeted beatings of journalists.¨

¨The rights of a journalist are different now. As a Ugandan journalist, you are in a crowd of lions,¨ said Lowino, ¨I am shocked that even the media here has once published a statement saying: ´we thank the government for giving us our rights.´ What rights?!¨

Lawino dreams of one day opening his own news media which would serve as an alternative media. ¨I want to see if I can play another role. Because I feel that the population is still yearning for something…and this something might be the truth of what happened to Northern Uganda.¨

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