“Will I get hurt?” Questions journalists covering Uganda’s elections are likely asking (Demo)

This statement was originally published on ifex.org on 16 February 2016.

Journalists ask questions. That’s their job. But their questions should never have to be about whether they can safely report on a matter in the public interest, or whether they will make it out of an election period alive.

Donald Trump is arguably the most controversial political figure in the race to be the next president of the United States. The billionaire GOP presidential hopeful has been described in the media as “a bigot and a racist” a “marketing genius” and “the most dangerous man in the world.” President Barack Obama has announced his incredulityat Trump’s ability to be president. The public have been exposed to all the candidates’ positions, even those guaranteed to raise eyebrows – or blood pressure.

The same level of access to information about Uganda’s opposition figures has not been made available to Ugandan citizens in the lead-up to its presidential and parliamentary elections, set for 18 February 2016.

Consider what happened at Baba FM last year.

On 21 July 2015 – fifteen minutes into what was supposed to be a one-hour talk show – the Jinja-based radio station was taken off the air, reportedly on management’s orders. “It’s the listeners who walked into the studios and informed me that the radio had gone off. The engineers were not aware of what had happened,” talk show host Anyole Innocent said after the incident.

The following day, the host and two of his colleagues were suspended indefinitely.

Their crime? Having hosted opposition presidential candidate Dr. Kizza Besigye on their show.

Besigye is one of seven candidates running against President Yoweri Museveni. He and one other candidate – former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi – are the only ones who stand a chance of dismantling Museveni’s thirty-year rule.

In the past year – and particularly in the past few months – Besigye, Mbabazi and other opposition politicians have been threatened or arrested for the political views. Most recently, on 15 February 2016, Besigye was held for allegedly “disrupting traffic,” and was soon after released.

But it is the people covering the political dynamics between Besigye, Mbabazi and Museveni who are at most risk of getting detained, injured and censored.

In response to the sobering realities exposed in reports and articles by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, here are four questions Ugandan journalists have had to ask themselves as they prepared to report on election day:

1) “Will I get hurt?”

Police brutality has escalated in the lead-up to Uganda’s presidential elections. In less than two months – between October and November 2015 – there were three separate incidents of journalists shot by police – while they were covering political events.

But it’s not only journalists who are subject to the violence.

Human Rights Watch warns that if demonstrations emerge after the elections, “there is a huge risk that protesters and bystanders – including children – will die at the hands of security forces. It has happened before.”

The organization notes that security forces have responded lethally to demonstrations and protests before, citing the case of two-year-old Julian Nalwanga, who was shot and killed in Maska in April 2011, in a demonstration following the general elections.

“Security forces’ lethal response to demonstrations and protests, including in 2011 and 2009, and threats to the media, including forced closure of media outlets, remain critical issues of concern for elections. Fear of reprisals deters people from freely expressing criticism of the government,” said Human Rights Watch in a statement on the 2016 Uganda elections.

2) “How can I keep my information safe?”

Journalists have had their homes broken into, or have had their reporting equipment confiscated while reporting.

On 12 January 2016, for example, a Kampala-based journalist’s house was broken into, and his laptops, video cameras, phone and external hard drives were stolen. “These were not ordinary thieves. It was a highly sophisticated intrusion into my house which I believe did not last long. They were interested in items where I store my information,” the journalist explained, noting that the thieves did not take his TV, radio, or home theatre system.

Opposition supporters walk in front of policemen in Kampala, Uganda, 15 February 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

3) “Will I be bribed?”

In a report entitled “Keep the People Uninformed,” radio journalists told Human Rights Watch that party representatives have offered them “money, trips, and training, in exchange for favorable coverage of the ruling party.”

Journalists who work outside of the capital often do not make more than 10,000 to 20,000 Ugandan shillings ($3-6 USD) per story, and are thus vulnerable to accepting money for favourable reporting.

The journalists who dare to not cover the ruling party favourably, risk not being invited to state functions or receiving pertinent state information.

As Human Rights Watch notes, “The co-option of the media by payouts ultimately impacts the public’s access to information and the education of voters on key issues.”

4) “Will I have to self-censor?”

If you report on a matter in the public interest, you risk being detained and requested to delete your material. That’s what happened to a BBC news crew in the town of Abim after they filmed a public hospital earlier this month. On 6 February, BBC correspondent Catherine Byaruhanga, local journalist and fixer Sam Lawino and cameraman Kelvin Brown were held for four hours after they refused to delete video footage of the hospital, which they had filmed from the road.

According to Reporters Without Borders, the hospital had been the subject of controversy several months ago after it had been visited by Besigye and criticized by interviewees for its dilapidated state. Following a report broadcast by Nation Television – and a verbal attack by Museveni- the health ministry and electoral commissionbanned all visits to public health facilities by presidential candidates.

As one civil society activist told Human Rights Watch, “What happens here is that now people are in a state of self-censorship. They know things are wrong but people don’t want to get into bad terms with government. They just don’t want to get into conflict. They are afraid to question these things.”

Journalists ask questions. That’s their job. They’re expected to prepare for unforeseen circumstances – to venture into the unknown.

But their questions should never have to be about whether they will make it out of election period alive. They should never have to wonder if it is safe for them to report on a matter in the public interest. And it is definitely not in the public interest if journalists can only earn a living wage by taking bribes from politicians.

As IFEX noted in a statement published on 16 February, the result of the recent violent assaults, involuntary seizures and forced media closures in Uganda “has been a marked chilling effect on journalists and others attempting to cover the elections.”

On 18 February, let’s hope that the next time Ugandans go to the polls the questions that journalists have to ask are more pertinent to the issues facing the country – and not how they can safely do their jobs.

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