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In July 2015, Ronald (who asked not to disclose his real name), the host of a political and public affairs radio program in Uganda, invited perennial opposition candidate Kizza Besigye to his show to discuss yet another presidential bid against long-standing leader Yoweri Museveni. That summer, talk of Uganda’s upcoming February elections was beginning to make airwaves.
But when Besigye showed up at the studio, Ronald’s bosses rebuked him for the invitation. “I told them I didn’t know that I was supposed to seek permission to let him in the studios,” Ronald said. “And that’s when everything went wrong.”
According to Ronald, the station’s owners switched the station off for about half an hour so that he couldn’t go on the air and then suspended him for about a month for “insubordination.” He resumed his work, but not without constant reminders of where his loyalties should lie—the posters of prominent candidates from the country’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party were plastered on the walls of the recording studio. Among them were Museveni and another local member of Parliament, Moses Grace Balyeku, who is also a co-owner of the radio station.
Starting on election day, the government blocked Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and mobile money services for three days “because some people misuse those pathways for telling lies,” as Museveni had justified at the time. In the end, Museveni won about 60 percent of the vote, according to Uganda’s electoral commission, seizing a fifth term as president. And yet, after voting results were announced and he accused the elections of being rigged, Besigye was jailed multiple times. Journalists who tried to cover his arrests were detained themselves. One journalist even ended up filming her own arrest as she reported from Besigye’s house on live television. Ahead of Museveni’s swearing-in ceremony in May, the government’s information minister, Jim Muhwezi, announced a ban on live media coverage of the opposition’s activities. Social media was blocked again for two days when Museveni was sworn in on May 12.
In Uganda, which is consistently ranked as “partly free” among global press freedom groups, journalists are given general free rein so long as their work does not undermine Museveni’s power, particularly during an election season. Of course, the reality is more complicated. The government uses less overt ways to repress free speech—through opaque media laws and financial pressure—making censorship more difficult to detect and to fix. A resulting environment of self-censorship exacerbates this reality.
For example, one radio station was shut because it hadn’t paid its licensing fees, according to the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the government’s regulatory body that oversees the licensing of the country’s some 250 radio stations. But its closure occurred only two days after the station featured another leading opposition candidate, Amama Mbabazi. The ruling NRM party also pressured the private television broadcaster NTV to broadcast drone footage of Museveni’s campaign rallies—a reel that was widely suspected of being doctored to show inflated crowds, several Ugandan journalists told me. NTV at first resisted using the footage, but after its reporters were subsequently kicked off the campaign trail, it relented.
Two BBC journalists were also detained while filming outside a dilapidated hospital in northern Uganda that had become a focal point for criticism against Museveni’s health policies. Local officials in turn offered them an ultimatum, said Catherine Byaruhanga, one of the reporters.
“We get to the police station, and he’s like, ‘Okay, now you have two options. One is either you can make a statement [on why you were filming outside the hospital]. Two, you can delete the footage,’” Byaruhanga said, adding that such a statement could be used to open charges. “And I was like, ‘No, you need to explain to me what exactly is going on. Is there a crime? What have we done?’ It can’t just be a backdoor deal to delete footage.”
The official kept the reporters at the police station for an hour, and when he returned, his mind had apparently changed. He did not make them delete any of their footage and even apologized, explaining he was simply trying to do his job, which probably meant he had received his orders from above. Pressure from social media campaigns calling for the journalists’ release, and the fact that they work for a prominent Western media organization, are likely why they were let go, Byaruhanga told me.
But government and police officials often use such intimidation to successfully silence local journalists, according to Haruna Kanaabi, the executive secretary of the Independent Media Council, which seeks to promote ethical and responsible journalism in Uganda.
“The situation on the surface looks normal until you interact with people,” he said. “Then you see those small, small things that go on.” These include bribes for either favorable coverage, pressure for censorship in response to unfavorable coverage, or even threats of firings or station shutdowns, he said.
Journalists who try to take the high road face other hurdles. Mulindwa Mukasa, a stringer for the Associated Press and freelance journalist for various local outlets, said he remains independent so that he doesn’t have to bend to employer pressures. But his home was broken into in January while he and his wife were sleeping, and his laptop, two video cameras, hard drives, and phone were all confiscated. He previously had his cameras taken by police and the footage deleted while covering opposition activities in 2011. And having recently begun reporting on a sensitive story, he is certain he had been targeted for his work. Nothing else in his house was missing after the break-in.
Edward Sekyewa, meanwhile, is the executive director of the Hub for Investigative Media, an organization that focuses on using Uganda’s Access to Information Act to carry out investigations on matters of public interest. Government agencies are required by law to produce information once they have received a formal request. Yet Sekyewa routinely finds himself hiring private lawyers and going to court to sue these governmental bodies for failing to do so.
“I’ve so far won three cases, but I have 38 cases pending in court about that,” he said. “I always share my findings with Ugandan journalists,” he continued. “But most of them don’t publish my work because they know it can land them in danger.”
The laws governing journalism in the country further add a degree of ambiguity that helps censorship thrive, local journalists and watchdog groups say. Radio broadcast journalists, for instance, must comply with standards set by Uganda’s Communications Act of 2013. The criteria state that news broadcasts must refrain from distorting facts and should not incite public insecurity or violence. But it is up to the radio producer to be mindful of these standards and ensure a reporter is not breaching any terms, said Fred Otunnu, the director of corporate affairs and broadcasting at the UCC.
In Otunnu’s view, “There’s a responsibility that comes along with free expression,” as he told me. “What we’re saying is let the gentlemen come on-air and speak responsibly.”
Yet Maria Burnett, a senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the law is vague enough that it gives the regime power to interpret it broadly. “The problem in Uganda is that the government or the UCC never presents any evidence of how what is being said on-air may affect national security, because they act first and courts are rarely involved,” she said. “So the pretext of national security ends up being used to obstruct free expression.”
Consequently, numerous tales of retaliation exist. Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper, along with two affiliated radio stations, was shut down in 2013 for more than a week after it published a letter by an army general alleging Museveni’s son was being groomed for succession. Its holding company, the Nation Media Group, reportedly lost thousands of dollars for every day its outlets were closed. Since then, the Monitor’s reportage has not been the same, according to a number of local journalists and watchdog groups.
This example raises another issue: financial security. Censorship is, frankly, better for business in Uganda. Although the state technically no longer owns the media in Uganda, the difficulty is staying afloat on ad revenue. There was never much advertising revenue to begin with, said Anya Schiffrin, a co-author of the study Publishing for Peanuts: Innovation and the Journalism Start-up, which examines the business models of media start-ups around the world. Multiple revenue sources could help ensure that media are not captured by any one particular stakeholder, she said, but the government is the biggest media advertiser in Uganda and therefore holds all the cards.
And the government is quick to take advantage of that, said Charles Mwanguhya, host of NTV’s political affairs program The Fourth Estate. “There is a way that government pulls the levers of other business interests to gain access to favorable media,” he explained.
Robert Sempala, the national coordinator for the nonprofit Human Rights Network for Journalists–Uganda, underscored how this affects reporting. “Journalists tell us how the media houses are owned by the politicians who are aligned to the ruling party, and how unprofessional managers ask them to write stories in a given, particular way.”
The authorities, expectedly, have different views on the matter. According to Fred Enanga, the spokesperson for the Ugandan police, journalists who end up clashing with security—for example, during public demonstrations—do so because they are “playing politics with journalism.” Their behavior becomes indistinguishable from the tactics of the politicians and the campaigns they cover, he said. For example, they might continue to harass officials for a quote even when they have no authority to speak on an issue.
The overwhelming critique, though, is that Museveni’s perpetual presidency and desire to curb criticism are what chill critical journalism in the country. Yet he largely gets away with his media crackdowns both internally and externally. U.S. leaders, for one, often do not see this as a pressing issue because Museveni is a longtime ally. “The U.S. has been hesitant to criticize because they [Ugandans] have been a significant contributor to African peacekeeping initiatives and the fight on the war on terror [in East Africa],” said Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of Vanguard Africa, an organization working to advance governance and reform across Africa. The United States contributes $750 million a year in foreign aid to Uganda, of which $170 million goes to military aid and cooperation.
Another reason the situation in Uganda is often viewed as “not that bad” is that Museveni ushered Uganda into a period of greater economic prosperity and stability after he first seized power in 1986 following a five-year guerrilla war. Pro-market reforms paved the way for healthy economic growth rates. In the 1990s and 2000s, Uganda was among the world’s 15 fastest-growing economies, though this growth has stagnated in recent years.
Furthermore, most of the countries around Uganda look worse. Zimbabwe experienced one of the worst declines in press freedom last year, according to Freedom House’s 2016 media freedom report, owing to conflict within the country’s ruling party over President Robert Mugabe’s successor. Rwandan journalists under President Paul Kagame—who, like Museveni, is credited with helping to boost economic growth and bring stability to his country—have been beaten and even tortured.
Tom Rhodes, a longtime regional correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists who is now working at Nuba Reports, a media enterprise in Sudan, said this comparison of Uganda with other countries may be part of the problem in underestimating the truth.
“Somewhere like Uganda where it is not 100 percent a police state, where journalists are not killed such as [in] Somalia or Congo or Burundi, when you compare it to some of these neighbors . . . it looks like a decent situation.”
It is this limbo of partial freedom and democracy that makes censorship seem like a nonissue and thus enables it to remain largely unaddressed.
“If the appearance [of democracy] were stripped away, it would be obvious what the people were dealing with,” said Busingye Kabumba, a law professor at Kampala’s Makerere University. “For as long as the cage is a glass cage, it takes that much longer for people to realize there is a cage.”