Ugandan Police brutality heightens as 2021 election draws closer – journalists as targets and what this means for democracy

"We have been beating journalists to restrain them from going where there is danger. Police beat journalists to help them...for their safety. When a police officer tells you to stop, you must stop for your own safety. I will not apologize for police actions" - Martin Okoth Ochola, Inspector General of Ugandan Police.

This week, on the 14th of January 2021, Ugandans will go to the polls to elect a president and other leaders. As a media and polical observer, two things stand-out this election season. The first, the obvious is, we are experiencing an unprecedented global pandemic whose impact and influences on electoral politics and media coverage is worth noting. The second is the impunity and blatant escalation of abuse of journalists covering elections and especially those covering the opposition candidates.

Arguments that the incumbent President (35 years in power and counting) has weaponized covid-19 to curb dissent and the proliferation of opposition politics is evident for any critical followers of the campaign trails. Police brutal and heavy-handed implementation of Covid 19 standard operation procedures (SOPs) for elections has been unevenly targeted at mainly 2 of the most popular presidential candidates: Kyagulanyi and Amuriat, their followers and any journalists covering their events. The unbalanced harassment and torture of opposition – yes, journalists are percieved as opposition – is blatant when juxtaposed with the incumbents calm, jubilant and closely packed political rallies and journalist freedoms that openly go againsts SOPs.

This electoral season has also seen an escalation in the torture and harrassment of journalists. Several journalists covering opposition candidates rallies have either been murdered, beaten into coma, threatened, blocked from covering events, stalked, their equipment either confiscated or damaged, arrested and jailed, sued. The chilling effect of all this is its impact on democracy. For one, the fear of harrassment leads to the more dangerous information black-out exactly when the fragile nation needs timely, factual and relevant information for them to make vital and informed decisions. Secondly, this harrassment has resulted into an information draught on matters that matter. The resultant skewed media coverage heavily focusing on police violence and less on a differentiated policy coverage of key campagn issues is a de-service to democracy. As such we do not know much about ALL the candidates and what they stand for as the violence against citizens and journalists has overshadowed media coverage. Ponder on this – what recourse do citizens have when denied any avenues to express their grievances? The analaysis on the single female candidate is a matter of another post.

Exactly 1 month ago today the 10th of December 2020, The Media Council instituted a dubious regulation demanding that all journalists covering elections must be re-registerd, for accreditation – merely a few days to election day. The argument was to protect them and fight fake news. But why now? Shouldnt such a regulation go through due legal process first, and in good time? What happens to Citizen journalists? Shouldnt a Ugandan Journalist body or Union be the ones to do this job? Now that the Uganda Journalists Association is defunct, who gatekeeps on journalists behalf? In short, it was a very problematic move. I am glad that the media fraternity have contested this sneak-attack and as of today, I have learnt that, this regulation has been revoked and instead Registered journalists must present identification from their media houses to the Districts of municipalities they cover for approval. How problematic this decision is, is yet to be assessed.

Find related strories across Africa here.

2021Polls-Editors sue media council over accreditation

Committe to Protect Journalists – Police beat, detain journalists covering elections

Google rejects Uganda governments move to block Youtube channels

ACME – Report: Uganda media coverage of election 2021. Focus on October -November 2020 coverage.

Government revokes foreign press pass as elections close in.

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