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Police biggest violators of media freedom in Uganda, report says

(HRNJ-Uganda/IFEX) - Press freedom in Uganda remains fragile as journalists continue to be attacked by security agencies — mainly the Uganda police — and verbal threats of arrest and closure of media houses which “sabotage development” continue, according to the Press Freedom Index 2012 report released by Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda on Tuesday, 5 February in Kampala.

The report titled "No Gains: Press freedom still fragile" shows that by December 2012, 42 of the 85 attacks on journalist registered by HRNJ-Uganda in 2012 were by the police force. The attacks ranged from physical beatings to direct pepper spraying, illegal arrests and detentions, manhandling, and stealing property.

The police rank as the biggest violators of media freedom in Uganda since 2009. “The police have found journalists [to be] their softest spot to mistreat at will, under the guise of keeping law and order. Their actions have made the right to freedom of expression and media hard to enjoy,” said Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, National Coordinator of HRNJ-Uganda.

According to the report, most of the attacks happened while journalists were covering controversial political issues as well as matters related to freedom of assembly and association.

The report also highlights the political, social and economic environment in the country, which is becoming less and less conducive for the promotion and protection of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and information, as well guaranteeing a free and independent press through which people can express themselves without fear of acute repercussions.

The report says that the space for enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms like freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and other freedoms continues to shrink as the government resorts to illegitimate restrictions on critical voices on a number of governance issues. In particular, journalists, civil society activists, and opposition politicians have continued to face arbitrary arrests, intimidation, threats and politically-motivated criminal charges for expressing dissenting views.

The trends show that there's a collapse of institutional frameworks that are supposed to protect Ugandans — including journalists — as they act on orders from individuals to facilitate regime longevity and survival. According to the report, a number of threats to suffocate the media were registered in the 2012, coming from the executive, parliament and local governments. Journalists were threatened with closure of their media houses, and denial of access to news scenes, among other restrictions.

Although the report shows a reduction in the cases of violence committed against journalists from 107 in 2011 to 85 in 2012, it points out that the government has now resorted to sophisticated means to curtail freedom of expression and media freedom which can hardly be documented.

The media legal framework in Uganda, according to the report, remains a serious threat to journalists in the course of their duties. Criminal defamation remains on statute books and journalists are charged under this section for writing about politicians. Political leaders who want to shield themselves from public accountability and scrutiny also resort to civil defamation as a measure to curtail the media from exposing their evils. Other laws are also being used to curtail the space for Ugandans to express themselves freely, including the Interception of Communication's Act, which enforces the registration of SIM Cards and the law on inciting violence in the penal code, among others.

In a period of four years, more than 289 journalists have been subjected to different forms of attacks committed by state and non-state actors. However, there's only one journalist who has received justice, leaving all the perpetrators scot-free. This clearly indicates that there's high impunity and therefore government is failing on its obligation to protect, uphold and promote human rights.

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