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RIGHTS-UGANDA: Suppressing ‘Enemies' of the State

Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

KAMPALA, Sep 29 2009 (IPS) - In the wee hours of one Saturday morning, Mary Serumaga was woken up by a disturbing phone call. Her younger brother Robert Kalundi Serumaga had just been abducted by four unknown gun-wielding men the previous night.

He had been dragged by the belt and kicked. They even tried to undress him. They hit him to the ground until he fell unconscious. He was then whisked off into the night in the trunk of a Toyota saloon car.

For Mary, this sounded more like a scene from a movie rather than real life. And what could have Robert done that was so bad that he had to be treated that way, she asked herself. For all she knew, her brother is neither a politician nor criminal, but rather a writer, broadcaster and filmmaker. Mary was helpless.

"My first reaction was to pray for Divine Mercy. After that I was confident my brother would be delivered," Mary told IPS in an interview.

Journalist Robert Kalundi Serumaga was abducted on the night of September 11, after leaving a weekly television talk-show, Kibazo on Friday on Wava Broadcasting Service (WBS TV). His partner Mary Ibazo, two fellow panellists and show host Peter Kibazo witnessed the abduction.

The show had discussed the then on-going stand-off between the Ugandan government and the largest ethnic group, the Kingdom of Buganda which culminated into city riots that saw tens of people lose their lives and property worth 40,000 dollars were destroyed.

Serumaga, who allegedly belittled President Yoweri Museveni on the show that evening, blaming him for the riots, was detained at unknown locations in Kampala city over the night of Friday and Saturday morning. It was until his family raised concern over his whereabouts that Serumaga was later brought to the Central Police Station. He told his family he had been beaten, tortured and threats made to his life.

The trend of events has created a fresh round of fear for the future of press freedom in Uganda. Four radio stations have since been closed down, accused of fanning the riots and inciting violence.

The Kibazo on Friday show was also suspended indefinitely. Government also banned public forums commonly known as Ebimeeza that were usually broadcast live on radio stations. These shows discussed topical social, economic and political issues. One of the stations, the Catholic Radio Sapientia was later re-opened on condition that management dismissed three presenters.

The Uganda Journalist Association (UJA) condemned the events: "There was an overreaction on the part of the government and the Broadcasting Council. Our own investigation showed that while there could have been some mistakes on the part of some radio stations, government just chose improper channels of handling the matter," says Joshua Kyalimpa, President of the Association.

"The manner in which Serumaga was abducted and the excessive use of force by security forces was also uncalled for," he told IPS.

Four days after Serumaga’s arrest he appeared before the Kampala Magistrate’s Court and was charged with six counts of sedition. He was granted bail.

But Serumaga’s abduction and torture opened fresh wounds from the past for a family that spent a decade in exile for similar reasons. Their father, renowned playwright, actor, novelist and freedom fighter Robert Serumaga was similarly persecuted by Ugandan dictator President Idi Amin’s government and later murdered in 1980.

Serumaga’s family feel that the charges against him are part of a tragically familiar pattern of intimidation and repression they experienced over two decades ago. "My father was accused of spying. He used to travel a lot and it was suspected that he had contacts with the ‘enemy’ which were not true. His plays were topical. They talked about the injustices at that time," Mary tells IPS.

But this time around, Serumaga’s family are determined to fight the charges against him for the sake of freedom of expression for future generations in Uganda.

"It (the incident) makes me sad but it does not make me feel that we have to leave (the country). I think it makes me feel that we have to stand and fight. And I think I would like to join other people who are fighting injustice… So it is really motivates me to be brave and fight," Mary, a publisher, told IPS. Her brother was unable to comment because his case is currently in court.

Serumaga’s case is not unique. Uganda has a history of silencing independent journalists. For the past two decades, several media houses have been shut down for publishing or broadcasting information that the state deems prejudicial to national security. Several top ranking journalists are also in court battles with the state charged with different crimes including criminal libel, sedition and ‘promoting sectarianism.’

Just last week, two editors of Uganda's weekly news magazine, "The Independent" were arrested, charged with sedition and released on bail.

Managing editor Andrew Mujuni Mwenda and editor Charles Bichachi were taken to the police's Criminal Investigations Department headquarters in Kibuli and within minutes, taken to the Buganda Road Chief Magistrate's Court and charged with sedition.

Their charge stems from a cartoon the magazine published on August 21st this year, showing President Museveni seated in a chair ticking a list of things his party is doing ahead of the 2011 General Election. One of items on his list was the introduction of ghost voters on the voters' register after he re-appointed disputed members of the Electoral Commission.

This is the fourth case Mwenda, founder of the 21-month old "The Independent", faces in court. He is already charged with promoting sectarianism, sedition and incitement. He risks over 20 years in jail on conviction in all the cases.

"Minus the beatings and drama (of Serumaga), this was a typical Friday arrest that most journalists and others considered to be enemies of the State are routinely subjected to," says Nicholas Ssengooba, a newspaper columnist in Kampala.

Article 29 of the Uganda 1995 Constitution guarantees free speech and expression. In 1993, the State liberalised the airwaves and this saw the growth of a vibrant media industry with hundreds of FM stations broadcasting both in English and local languages.

There are also over 25 newspapers and over ten TV stations. However, observers argue that the media is not as free as it seems.

"The relationship between the media and the state is not a clear black and white situation. You have freedom on one hand and limitations on the other especially when you publish what (does) not please the authorities," says managing Editor of The Observer newspaper, James Tumusiime. He has been on police bond since 2006 on charges of ‘promoting sectarianism’.

However, draconian colonial media laws still being used today continue to suppress media freedom, rights activists say. These include sections of the Penal Code Act such as laws on sedition and criminal libel.

In June 1997, the Uganda Journalists Safety Committee brought two petitions in the constitutional court, challenging the law relating to the press and journalist as well as the sedition and criminal libel sections of the criminal code.

"We are opposing the sedition charges placed on Serumaga. This charge has already been challenged in the courts of law," Kyalimpa said. He said the UJA did not believe that there was a valid case against Serumaga because the law of sedition was questionable.

In June this year, four journalists from the Daily Monitor also filed notice that they would challenge the constitutionality of the criminal libel laws before the Supreme Court, the country's highest court.

In 2004, Mwenda, who was a political editor at the Daily Monitor successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to strike down the offense of "publishing false news."

"We are struggling with our pressures and we plan to expand on the space we have to practice to exercise our freedoms," The Observer’s Tumusiime says.

However, there is also fear that state intimidation is negatively impacting on freedom of expression and the media, creating fear among journalists. Some are even practicing self-censorship.

"The problem now comes in my story writing. Because there is tension in the media, I am prompted to leave out some of the stories that I feel may cause problems to both the radio station and me," said Rose Namale, a journalist with one of the closed stations, Radio Two.

"Although I know it is an objective story and I have my facts, I may be forced to put it aside. So in most cases, we have to write stories that are in favour of government," she explained.

Editors too are feeling the pinch: "Self-censorship always crosses your mind. I think it’s a matter of judgment. You must understand the environment within which you are. I would be lying to say that I am totally blind to anything," Tumusiime tells IPS.

And what does the trend of events tell about the state of press freedom in Uganda? "Well, it shows that the powers that be are afraid of the press and secondly it shows that a free media is part of service delivery… Media freedom is an essential part of that service delivery because you the media keep the issues in the public domain. Robert was released partly because the news had reached the internet and the world's media," said Mary Serumaga who has just published a book, The Service Delivery Framework.

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