December 17, 2020

Ugandan media regulator’s ultimatum to journalists

Candidate Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine) is arrested by police before during a demonstration on July 11, 2018 in Kampala. Isaac Kasamani / AFP
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns a directive by Uganda’s media regulator, the Media Council, requiring all journalists to apply for new accreditation in order to continue working. Coming after many press freedom violations in recent weeks, the directive is clearly designed to restrict coverage of the campaign for next month’s presidential election, RSF said.

The disturbing directive, issued by Media Council chairperson Paulo Ekochu in mid-election campaign on 10 December, warns all media and journalists that they must apply for press tags in order to be able to keep covering the campaign for the 14 January election.

The measure also concerns foreign journalists, who must obtain a special media pass from the Media Council “showing particular geographical or thematic areas of intended media coverage,” the directive says. Journalists have been given a week to apply. Those who continue to work without obtaining the new accreditation will face the possibility of criminal proceedings, Ekochu warned.

No one is fooled about the reasons for this decision, which is clearly designed to screen journalists and media outlets allowed to cover the presidential election campaign,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “In the form of a dangerous ultimatum, this measure constitutes a crude attempt to prevent broad, independent coverage of the electoral process. It is all the more worrying because the media regulator has done nothing to stop serious acts of violence against journalists in recent weeks. We urge the authorities to allow journalists to work freely and to guarantee their safety. No credible election can be held without them.

The election is pitting Yoweri Museveni, who has been Uganda’s president since 1986 and who is seeking a sixth term, against Robert Kyagulanyi, a popular singer better known as Bobi Wine, who has emerged as the main challenger. Wine has been arrested repeatedly since his election to parliament in 2017. Journalists covering his rallies are often subjected to violence. Six journalists were injured by police when Wine tried to access his campaign headquarters on 11 December.

RSF has logged 27 press freedom violations in Uganda since the start of November, including five arrests of journalists and 16 acts of police violence against journalists. The foreign media have not been spared. Three Canadian journalists with CBC News who went to Uganda to cover the election campaign were deported in November.

The brutality of the methods used to gag journalists is being accompanied by increasingly tight controls on the media. A new police unit was created in August to disperse gatherings near media outlets when politicians are invited for interviews. Officially, this unit is tasked with combatting violence and crowds that could facilitate the spread of Covid-19. But in practice, media are now obliged to tell the authorities in advance who they would like to invite.

Uganda has fallen 23 places in RSF's World Press Freedom Index since the last presidential election in 2016 and is now ranked 125th out of 180 countries.