Types and Sources of Threats to Media Freedom in Uganda

Types and Sources of Threats to Media Freedom in Uganda

Florence Namasinga Selnes, Gerald Walulya
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1298-2.ch014
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This chapter contributes to journalism research from the Uganda's context by investigating the types and sources of threats to journalists' safety and media freedom in the country. The authors achieve this by examining relevant documents on the state of journalism in Uganda and interviewing journalists. There are two overarching questions that this chapter is concerned with, which are What are the types of threats to journalists' safety and media freedom? and What are the sources of threats to journalists' safety and media freedom in Uganda? The investigation is grounded in theory about journalists' safety and media freedom. The data were collected through document analysis and interviewing of a purposively selected of sample of journalists in Kampala. The data was collected between April and May 2019 in Kampala, Uganda's capital. The findings show rampant violations against journalists and the media. The violations include physical assault, intimidation, arrests in addition to destruction of journalists' property such as cameras. These are perpetuated by security agencies.
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There is no doubt that the media plays a crucial role in society. Yet, world-wide journalists and other media professionals continue to be persecuted for doing their work. A United Nations Education, Science, Culture and Communication (UNESCO, 2018) report rated journalism as one of the most dangerous professions because of the safety and security risks associated with this profession. For example, between 2012 and 2016, a total of 530 journalists were killed across the world, with only one out of ten cases receiving justice (UNESCO, 2018). According to the International News Safety Institute, a total of 73 journalists were killed in 2018. The Institute further reports that 13 of the murdered journalists were from Afghanistan, nine were from Mexico while seven were from the United States. Armed conflicts remain a key cause of deaths of journalists while other major causes of risks are reporting on corruption, crime, politics and drugs. The number of local journalists’ murdered compared to international reporters continues to be high. In fact, it is possible that some of the local murders of journalists go unreported. However, international correspondents such as the former Washington Post columnist, Jamal Kashoggi, murdered at the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul in October 2018 tend to attract a lot of attention. Apart from killings, other threats that journalists face world-wide include intimidation, harassment, detention, kidnaps and exile.

The tense relationship between governments and the media in semi-democratic contexts means that practicing journalism is a challenge. In some countries, it is common for security agencies and politicians to target sources, interviewees and informants. In Ethiopia for example, security officials are known to harass or threaten individuals who speak to the media (Human Rights Watch [HRW], 2017). In South Sudan, court in May 2019 sentenced a prominent economist, Peter Biar Ajak to two years in prison for “disturbing peace” because he gave interviews to foreign media.1 This makes it difficult to find witnesses to events and experts willing to be interviewed. Thus, there is a reluctance of potential sources to openly speak to journalists on sensitive matters due to pervasive surveillance. Additionally, Internet and mobile communication surveillance under anti-terrorism and interception of communication regulations allow security forces to monitor communication devices of opposition politicians, perceived enemies, activists and journalists. Real and perceived surveillance limits mobile and telephone communication between journalists and sources, which poses a big challenge for newsgathering.

Like in many other less democratic societies, journalists in Uganda face serious threats to their own safety as a result of their work. Whereas only two journalists have been killed between 1992 and 2017 (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2017), other forms of threats are on the rise. For instance, a total of 113 cases of media freedom attacks were reported in Uganda in 2016. At least 45 of these cases were arrests and detentions, 27 cases were related to assault, while 11 cases involved blocking access to information (HRNJ-U, 2017). Most of these attacks tend to be heightened during politically-charged periods such as times of contentious political debates and during elections. Some examples include: the arrest of journalist Joy Doreen Biira in November 2016 for filming a military raid in Kasese, the kidnapping of Gertrude Tumusiime Uwitware of NTV for criticising the First Lady who also doubles as the minister of education on Facebook and the kidnapping of New Vision’s Charles Etukuri.

Some of the major sources of online and offline threats to journalists’ safety and media freedom are perpetrated by state and non-state actors, although the former seems to be most involved in cases of violating media freedom. For example, of the 113 cases of media freedom violation that happened in 2016, the police were involved in 83 cases (73%) followed by the statutory media regulator, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and the judiciary perpetrating four cases each (HRNJ-U, 2017).

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