Ugandan reporter threatened over coverage of rain forest destruction
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned about an increase in threats to journalists trying to cover illegal logging and deforestation in the Zoka rain forest, in northwestern Uganda’s Adjumani district.
The targets include John Unzima, a reporter for Uganda’s leading state-owned English-language daily, New Vision, who has been forced to live in hiding, far from his home in the city of Adjumani, for the past four months.
In an audio message shared on 31 December by Friends of Zoka, a WhatsApp group of environmentalists, two local politicians identified by Unzima as Amacha Goli and Titus Joogo can be heard conspiring against him and promising to correct him “in a Museveni way,” referring to Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president since 1986, who is on RSF’s list of press freedom predators.
Unzima’s attempts to report these threatening comments to the Adjumani police were unsuccessful. He then turned to the police criminal investigation department in the capital, Kampala, only to be told that “there are no criminal ingredients in the recording that contravene any law.”
RSF, which has seen the detailed complaint that Unzima submitted on 11 January, contacted the Uganda police spokesperson and the criminal investigation officer who handled Unzima’s complaint, but neither wanted to explain why no attempt was made to question the alleged sources of these threats.
Unzima’s investigative reporting on the Zoka forest reserve’s destruction has been annoying more and more people. He has repeatedly drawn attention to the destructive impacts of illegal logging and deforestation on this tropical rain forest and on local small farmers – impacts compounded by climate change.
The businessmen responsible for the deforestation routinely respond to his reporting with threats and intimidation, without any action being taken by the local police. Last year, Unzima was threatened by Moses Ali, a retired army general who is second deputy prime minister, after a Sunday Vision article by Unzima exposed influence trafficking by Ali’s family and business associates to get a permit to mine in the forest.
“We strongly condemn these threats and the lack of any attempt by the Ugandan police to put a stop to them,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “It is shocking that those responsible for these threats can calmly go about their business while the reporter is forced to go into hiding.”
Ugandan journalists who turn to the police when threatened often fail to obtain an appropriate response, or find that the police respond slowly or in a non-transparent way that ultimately discourages them.
Far from being an isolated case, Unzima’s story reflects an increase in attacks against environmental journalists. In 2021, the equipment of another New Vision journalist, Agnes Nantambi, was confiscated after she wrote articles about the destruction of the Bugoma forest in western Uganda.
In 2020, Unzima and Iceta Scovin, a reporter for the Daily Monitor and NTV, were detained by the Ugandan army while covering an operation aimed at combatting illegal deforestation in Moyo, the district immediately to the north of Adjumani. After their reporting – which incriminated the resident district commissioner – was published, the commissioner ordered their arrest in order to delete their evidence.
Before last year’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, RSF joined more than 60 journalists in issuing an appeal to the world’s leaders to ensure respect for the right to information about the environment.