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Battered journalist suffering two years after attack (Demo)

This statement was originally published on Doha Centre for Media Freedom on 20/10/2016

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Ugandan journalist Andrew Lwanga, incapacitated with a spinal injury two years ago, is still seeking for both treatment and justice.

In 2015 the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ) Uganda registered 143 cases of assault, including Lwanga’s injury.

On January 12 2015, the cameraman with local Television-Wavah Broadcasting Station was assigned to cover a press conference by a group called the Unemployed Youths of Uganda (UYU) seeking permission to carry out different activities around Kampala.

They set out to deliver a letter to the police inspector general, General Kale Kayihura at the Naguru Police headquarters, when a white Toyota Saloon car parked up next to the group.

The car had four occupants including three uniformed police officers. Two officers were armed with Kalashnikovs and a third, an electric cable.

“The one who was carrying an electric cable jumped out of the car and approached the leader of the youths and hit him with a cable,” explained Lwange.

The cable wielding officer, former Old Kampala Police Post Commander Joram Mwesigye, then tried to chase other youth who were carrying placards.

One of the youths jumped onto the road and Mwesigye followed him but according to Lwanga, “he fell flat in the middle of the road.  Being close to him I continued filming, he then got up and saw me, grabbed the cable and swung it towards me, I jumped and he missed.”

Knowing they were cornered, the unemployed youths reconvened and addressed the media. “Police are trying to block us from accessing the IGP’s office, since we don’t have money to hire cars to drive there, we shall walk…”

Before the youngster could complete his sentence, Lwanga explains: “The white car drove into the group of youths and journalists almost knocking us over, but we all jumped in different directions.”

The unemployed youths ran into a restaurant where they were surrounded by police and placed under arrest. Still filming, Lwanga said: “I turned my head back to see the white saloon car again driving at breakneck speed and shouted to a fellow cameraman, Timothy the guy is going to hit you.

“I paused my camera and quickly pulled him away, and the car missed us by an inch,” he explained.

Lwanga falls victim to intense beatings.

Now agitated, Mwesigye got out of the car with his cable and started hitting the handcuffed youths.

The officer then turned round to find journalists filming, he shouted, “What do you guys want,” as he swung his cable. “He hit me and I tried to grab the cable but it was hard, he hit me again and I guarded myself with the camera and the force smashed it.”

At the fourth attempt the cable landed on Lwanga’s head. “I fell down and another police officer hit me with his knee…I landed on the hard surface head first.”

Lwanga was shoved into the front seat and an officer sat next to him. “He started punching me in my stomach as he tightly choked me with the other elbow.”

With one hand on the wheel, Commander Joram started slapping Lwanga as they drove to the Old Kampala Police station.  Almost unconscious, Lwanga repeatedly asked to be given first aid but his pleas fell on deaf ears.

He was then locked up in a cell where he spent a few hours until fellow journalists turned up and demanded his release. Set free, Lwanga was rushed to Mulago National hospital.

Unknown to the journalist was the fact that his body was caving in to the effects of the beatings. After recording a police statement to get a reference letter for a scan, he collapsed on his way out of the station.

Three days later, he woke up at Nsambya hospital.  “As I got up to go to the bathroom, I fell flat on the floor, I couldn’t feel a thing from the waist down.”

In panic, Lwanga’s elder brother pinched him, but there was no feeling, “I spent another 27 days in hospital and it was a nightmare.”

A scan indicated Lwanga’s nervous system had broken down and his spinal bones had compressed. Doctors recommended correctional surgery and physiotherapy, until he regained feeling in the right leg. “All of these months I was in diapers.”

Desperate and stuck in a wheelchair, Lwanga moved from one doctor to another until almost running out of money to pay medical bills. Journalists then started the #SaveLwanga campaign which also saw State House pay 20 million shillings towards treatment.

With more financial support, including an anonymous donation from the US, the #SaveLwanga campaign collected $42,000 to fund corrective surgery in South Africa. The first surgery on the right hand side of his spine enabled Lwanga to control his bowel movements, and he even started to walk using clutches.

Delayed justice

With support from HRNJ Uganda, Lwanga’s case was taken to court in February 2015.

HRNJ Lawyer Nandudu Diana reveals that the case has so far been handled by four magistrates.

The State Attorney also claimed the main exhibit – the camera – had gotten lost while in state custody.  According to Nandudu, other delays were also caused by the defence lawyer who argued that the exhibits were not identified and tendered in court.

“Yet when we did, he objected to the witnesses saying they were not suitable to identify the documents because they had not made police statements,” she said, adding “they just wanted to frustrate the case.”

Since February, Nandudu says they have had over 20 court appearances. But she insists: “Justice must be seen to be done, we are fighting because we know Lwanga has a good case.  This officer must be an example to others that they can’t beat up journalists and get away with it.

Nandudu points out that over the years, HRNJ has registered many assault cases, but “some journalists agree to settle their cases out of court, well knowing some officers act with impunity.”

Commander Mwesigye did plead to pay Lwanga out of court, but Nandudu states that the case – if won – will set a good precedent for journalists. “The money is always very little compared to the state they are left in. Joram must face the law, and money cannot replace what the journalist has lost.”

However, financial support has not come alone. Lwanga reveals that he has been beaten twice by unknown people who followed him to his house.

“They started with anonymous calls warning me not to go to court, then the first time I appeared in court, my laptop that had footage of the January event got lost mysteriously.”

He recalled that sometime in June 2015 on his way back from hospital “as I entered the gate, four men came from nowhere and started beating me up.”

One man grabbed him by the leg and pulled him towards a trench. “The other three kicked me as they asked, ‘who do you think you are?’ I made noise and was saved by a motorcyclist.”

Lwanga then moved to his mother’s home.  After another court appearance, Lwanga was dropped home by a friend, but while they came close to the gate, they noticed some people standing close by and immediately reversed.

“At that moment I saw two men jump on a motorcycle one carrying a gun.  Since then, I don’t leave home after 4pm.”

Almost in tears, Lwanga describes the past 20 months as difficult. “Sometimes I sat in my wheelchair and realised I wasn’t getting better. I cried myself to sleep, my wife left me, and I can’t live with my son because he doesn’t understand why I can’t play with him or pick him up from school.

“I depend on people. I hope the law takes it course so I can finally get justice.”

Sempala Robert the National coordinator for Human Rights Network for Journalists Uganda laments that most police officers act unprofessionally. “Whoever is seen filming becomes their prime target and that is how most journalists in the line of duty fall victim.”

He also stresses: “Sometimes the professional police officers deviate from best practices because they are partisan and enjoy impunity, which compounds the problem.”

Mwesigye remains suspended from the Police Force.

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