In the months leading up to election day, Ugandan authorities have restricted the ability of ordinary citizens, civil society activists and journalists to engage in open debates on sensitive issues such as official corruption, high rates of unemployment, rising costs of living, human rights violations and succession in the presidency, say CIVICUS and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI).
“It appears that attacks on the media and journalists aim to restrict coverage of events and discussions that appear to challenge the actions and performance of the current government that has been in power for 30 years,” said David Kode, Policy and Research Officer at CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations. “Worryingly, freedom of assembly of members of the political opposition has also been restricted, while civil society organisations have been intimidated.”
Journalists, particularly those working for independent radio stations outside of the capital Kampala, have been targeted by the authorities and accused of providing biased platforms for members of the political opposition to broadcast messages to their supporters. Several have been prevented from covering political campaigns, while others have been physically assaulted and shot at with live ammunition during demonstrations and campaign rallies organised by opposition parties.
On 20 January 2016, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) suspended the licence of independent radio Endigyito FM and seized the station’s equipment after it broadcast an interview with a leading opposition candidate. Earlier, on 15 October 2015, police shot and injured Radio One correspondent Ivan Vincent as he covered squabbles between supporters of the leading opposition candidate Kizza Besigye and the police.
Police have used excessive force to disperse some opposition rallies and pre-emptive arrests have also been carried out against opposition party members and political figures to prevent them from going to campaign rallies. Authorities have blamed civil society organisations for inciting violence, demanding apologies and retractions of statements. In several instances, police have used the Public Order Management Act, which regulates assemblies in Uganda, to crackdown on peaceful rallies and demonstrations by refusing to grant permission for some and providing police with powers to use brute force to disperse peaceful gatherings.
Moreover, the timing of the contentious NGO Bill on 10 November 2015, just a few months before the elections, also raises questions on the way the government views civil society organisations. The bill places undue restrictions on NGOs by establishing a National Bureau for NGOs with extensive powers which include the refusal to register NGOs and revoke their permits. The Bureau has the authority to monitor the activities of NGOs.
CIVICUS and FHRI call on the Ugandan authorities to stop the crackdown on independent voices and journalists and create an enabling environment that allows political participation of all actors, peaceful assemblies, and media freedom to objectively report on issues affecting the people of Uganda.