Journalists Injured in Fresh Police Attack as ACME warns of Plan to Stifle Media Ahead of Polls

At least four journalists are nursing wounds after being clobbered by Uganda Police Force personnel as they covered National Unity Platform (NUP) Presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, who’s on the campaign trail in Northern Uganda.

Police yesterday blocked Bobi from accessing his campaign venue in Alebtong District, leading to a standoff that lasted over seven hours.

In the dead of the night, police descended on journalists whom they mercilessly beat to pulp.

The victims are Moses Waisswa of Busoga one FM, Batte Ssesanga of BBS Terefayina,  John Cliff Wamala of NTV and David Tamale of Bukede TV. 

The development comes at a time of increased public outcry over police harassment of journalists covering opposition presidential candidates.

The journalists said despite identifying themselves, police went ahead to attack them.

This situation raises concerns about the safety of journalists as the country prepares for the 2021 general elections.

The Media Council of Uganda (MCU) has since issued a statement saying all practising journalists in Uganda have to register for accreditation or risk losing the right to cover the 2021 elections and other official events.

“Recent events of election coverage have shown that reporters/media practitioners are exposed to a lot of danger from all sides of the divide,” said Paul Ekochu, the chairman Uganda Media Council.

“In light of the aforesaid, the Media Council has engaged security agencies to find a solution to enable free movement and access by media practitioners to important events, in particular during this election period without undue harassment. As such, it has been agreed that all persons covering election events should hold a press tag issued by the Media Council. Without it no one will be allowed to cover events. This is primarily for the safety of the practitioners,” he added.

However, the African Centre for Media Excellence said the coming at a time when both local and foreign journalists covering the election campaigns have documented several cases of illegalities and excesses by police and state functionaries as they go about regulating public meetings and rallies by opposition candidates, the new directive on accreditation easily comes off as a move to “stifle media scrutiny of this conduct as well as critical and independent journalism” generally in the run up to the 2021 elections.

Ironically, the guidelines were released on 10 December, the International Human Rights Day.

The Media Council said the accreditation of local journalists was in accordance with Section 1(d) of the Press and Journalist Act, which provides for “promotion, generally, of the (flow) of information”.

“We are afraid the move has the potential of doing exactly the opposite at a time when citizens need access to reliable and timely information in order to make informed political decisions,” said Dr Peter G. Mwesige, ACME’s executive director.

ACME said in any case, “we are not sure of the legality of registering journalists without following the procedures prescribed in the law. Moreover, the provisions of the Press and Journalist Act on licensing of journalists are controversial and still the subject of litigation in the Constitutional Court.”

The law

According to the law, the Media Council is supposed to issue practising certificates to journalists who have presented certificates of enrolment issued by the National Institute of Journalists of Uganda (NIJU).

The Council’s job is to enter the enrolled journalists on the “register of journalists of Uganda” after which those who have paid the prescribed fees are issued with practising licences.

The Media Council says they were responding to the infiltration of the media industry by “quacks” and “recent events of election coverage” that have shown that “reporters/media practitioners are exposed to a lot of danger from all sides of the divide”.

They add that accreditation will allow “free movement and access by media practitioners to important events, in particular during this election period, without undue harassment”.

“Indeed, recent physical attacks on journalists are regrettable and should be condemned by all, but we don’t think they were occasioned by lack of identification on the part of journalists,” Dr Mwesige said.

“We call upon the Media Council to carry our more consultations in a transparent manner, and to address the concerns of both local and foreign journalists. As Uganda’s Supreme Court has said, the primary objective of media law and regulation should be to promote the right to freedom of expression, not to limit it.”

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