NAIROBI, Kenya — Uganda has for years been a place where foreign journalists love to work.
There are stories to cover, living is affordable, it’s a good base for covering the region and the people are stunningly friendly, with a deep-rooted culture of beer and grilled pork.
There’s the daily thrill of slicing through Kampala's traffic on the back of a motorbike taxi, the professional challenge of covering Uganda’s domestic social and political upheavals while being a short hop from the emerging state of southern Sudan, the collapsing state of Congo or the repressively booming state of Rwanda.
Uganda's work permits are not prohibitively expensive, media accreditation is a formality and, until now, foreign journalists have been free to report as they see fit.
In that regard, foreign journalists simply follow a trail blazed by Uganda’s vibrant local media that bring people clustering at street corners every morning to read the early edition of the state-run New Vision, the independent Daily Monitor, the scandalous Red Pepper or any number of local-language tabloids.
Now it appears that all of this is under threat. President Yoweri Museveni, in a letter published in the New Vision Wednesday, called journalists “enemies” for their coverage of recent weeks of anti-government protests in which at least 10 people have died.
“The media houses both local and international such as Al Jazeera, BBC, [regional television station] NTV, The Daily Monitor, etc, that cheer on these irresponsible people are enemies of Uganda’s recovery and they will have to be treated as such,” wrote Museveni.
The climate toward journalists is chilling and may even become dangerous. Tom Rhodes, a consultant with the Committee to Protect Journalists, warns of the "Thomas Beckett syndrome," in which government operatives seek to ingratiate themselves by doing their leader’s unspoken bidding.
“What tends to happen is that whatever Museveni says, security services react to it even if an actual order isn’t issued,” said Rhodes. “The press are now being
harassed, intimidated, detained and even attacked.”
Last week, when opposition leader Kizza Besigye returned from Nairobi, where he had sought medical treatment after being injured in a violent arrest during one of April’s “walk-to-work” protests, 10 local journalists were beaten and had their equipment stolen by security men.
Foreign journalists have reported an increasing number of threats and intimidation while covering the recent unrest, both from uniformed and plain-clothed officers as well as from government officials.
Soon after Besigye’s last arrest internal security minister Kirunda Kivejinja held a press conference in which he accused foreign journalists of being opposition “bedfellows.”
The following week the Red Pepper tabloid, which often discredits government critics or those who have fallen out of favor, splashed on its front page a
story repeating and expanding on the minister’s accusations.
“Many experts, who are on the payroll of the countries that have been bankrolling Besigye, have been posing around as international journalists,” the Red Pepper alleged.
“On the morning of Thursday, after a long night of planning, Besigye had breakfast with his 'journalists' at his home in Kasangati. He left his house with these foreign and local 'journalists' on a planned mission,” wrote the newspaper.
This is nonsense. I was there that morning, alongside a number of other foreign and local journalists, many of whom I know from working elsewhere on the
continent and all of whom were trying to do their jobs as eyewitnesses to events as they happen.
Rhodes says the attempt to link an independent press with the opposition is disturbing, and will establish journalists as the enemy in the eyes of Museveni’s
“Most worrying is the tendency to accuse the press of siding with the opposition, of planning economic sabotage and opposing development,” he said.
Press freedoms are being squeezed in Uganda as Museveni, in power for 25 years, faces the biggest political threat to his rule so far in the form of the
protests that Besigye organized last month.
But this is nothing new, according to Maria Burnett, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who says, “The space for journalists to report on controversial or
politically sensitive issues in Uganda has decreased over the past decade.”
Referring to more recent events she said, “During protests, journalists have been targeted by security forces for beatings, and had cameras and photographs
“The government of Uganda has deployed a wide range of tactics to stifle critical reporting at both newspapers and radios, from occasional physical violence to
threats, harassment, bureaucratic interference and criminal charges,” Burnett said.
In response to the crackdown on press freedoms, Ugandan journalists have imposed a boycott on reporting government events.
But that seems to have had little impact with police chief Kale Kayihura proposing to introduce special accreditation for journalists wishing to report on
In an editorial, the Daily Monitor wrote that journalists have, “for long endured a battering from government elements.”
The paper continued: “Surely, there have been many forms of affront to media freedom but none would come close to what the police chief and the government
“The media is not party to whatever happens during demos. Journalists are always there to watch, take note and report, and in essence, satisfy the public’s
right to know.”
For now Uganda’s media remains free to voice such opinions, but for how long?