Brutality against journalists: Practitioners in Northern Uganda urged to take charge of their safety

todaySeptember 23, 2022

By Rosemary Anena

Even after he identified himself as a journalist, the blows and kicks continued to rain down on Julius Ocungi. It had all started with a simple phone call, a source tipping him off about a police operation to enforce Covid-19 guidelines in Kitgum town. Without a second thought, Ocungi who at the time was the East Acholi bureau chief for Uganda Radio Network URN, grabbed his camera and rushed out to investigate the reports. However, he soon found himself in the middle of a commotion, encircled by police officers who beat him up for taking their pictures. “I got a tip from the community that police officers were enforcing the presidential directives to curtail the spread of covid-19. I went out at around 7pm, but when I saw the manner in which the police officers were arresting the bar owners and their patrons and I started taking pictures, they all swooped down on me kicking, punching and slapping,” he recalls.
“I identified myself as a journalist but they did not stop. They ended up confiscating my camera.” The following day, Ocungi tried to file a complaint at the local police station but the officer in charge of criminal investigation – the OC CID – refused to register the complaint. “He feared victimization from his colleagues. I then went to the Professional Standards Unit at Aswa Region Police headquarters where an officer told me to write my own statement. I felt that was odd because a victim has never had to write his or her own statement. To this day, I have not got any help with the case”, he said.
This is not the first attack on journalists.

After a busy day at his desk, Daniel Ojara Emmy, an assistant News Editor with speak FM, was looking forward to a quiet evening as he walked back home. Along Walter Opwonya Street in Gulu City, he fell into an ambush set up by thugs who beat him up, making off with his property.  Two years after the incident, the police have not made any progress towards bringing the suspects to book or recovery of the lost property. “I was robbed by thugs on 17th October, 2020 between 8 and 9pm as I headed back home after work. I lost equipment worth 4 million Uganda Shillings and I registered a case at the police the following day. They promised to get back to me after their investigation but two years down the road, I am still waiting”, he said. Ojara says he has not received any support, “not even from the media houses that I worked for have given me start-up capital.”
Also, Irene Abalo, a journalist with Nation Media Group was among the 20 other journalists who on 17th February 2021, were beaten up as they covered National Unity Platform (NUP) president Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine, when he went to deliver a petition against state brutality to the United Nations Human Rights office in Kampala. “The armed forces deployed heavily along all roads leading to Kololo and blocked everyone except Mr. Kyagulanyi, and two other NUP officials, who were allowed to proceed to the UNHCR office. But shortly afterwards, an officer ordered soldiers to beat us up. Some journalists sustained head injuries as a result of beating while I was followed by a female soldier where I had sought a refuge. She beat me up and I sustained injuries to the leg during the scuffle. Right now, I walk with the aid of a crutch,” Abalo says.

Maj Gen Matsiko stranded at Media Centre in December 2020 after journalists walked out security briefing in protest of brutality.

Rising to the challenge of safety of journalists in northern Uganda, the Northern Uganda Media Club NUMEC, a voluntary association established in 2009 by a team of journalists in the then war-scarred region, last April set up a safety desk to provide legal, medical and financial support to journalists in professional distress Alfred Oryem, the safety focal person at NUMEC says they have been able to establish partnerships that are bringing critical resources to support activities that enhance the safety of journalists. “Last year we pitched our idea to Usalama Fund, with one of the funders in the field of safety which was successful and so the establishment of a safety desk. If a journalist is going to cover events like riots or elections, you register your particulars and your gadgets with the safety desk. In some instances, we offer personal protection equipment like protective headwear. Although at the moment we don't have bullet-proof vests, and other protective wear, funds allowing, we hope to have a comprehensively stocked safety desk next year,” Oryem said.
He added: “We have all the contacts for the local leaders, human rights defenders, Police and the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces in northern Uganda. We check on journalists in the field every two hours so, if we cannot reach one for more than 4 hours, a search is activated.”

Job Okot Ronny is a television journalist who benefitted from the project initiated by NUMEC when his gadgets were destroyed by rioting students on 7th July 2022. “When I learnt of a strike from one of the by-passers at one of the schools in Gulu City, I immediately went home and picked my bag which contained my work equipment. When the Boda-boda man dropped me at the school and I started taking my video shots the students descended on me with beatings, kicks and slaps. Others snatched my bag from my back while others destroyed the camera”, he said.
Okot says that after registering a case (Gulu CPS REF 47/7/7/2022) of simple robbery by students he was advised to seek medical attention which the safety desk at NUMEC catered for.  “The following day, I went to the police and I was told to register all the equipment that I lost and I supplied the copy to the office of the Resident City Commissioner, NUMEC, the school, and a copy with the police. Health wise, I am in a better position to resume work but what I lack are the equipment I lost. With broadcast journalism, you cannot do much when you don’t have a camera and a laptop.”
Charles Akena, an administrator with NUMEC recalls that at first, the issue of safety was not among their priorities but the frequent attacks on journalists prompted a rethink, resulting in the establishment of a safety program. Irene Atek Jovia, the Station manager Mega FM thinks that all employers have a duty to protect all workers under their roof. “Once you employ people, protect them. There is no way I can fail to protect my news editors, reporters, news readers and the person on air because they are the people and the radio. However, there is a conflicting loyalty, sometimes, the station manager might want to implement the policy but the director might not want to”, she said.

According to the 2021 annual Uganda Press Freedom Index of 2021, the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda HRNJ-UG registered 131 cases involving rights violations and abuses against journalists and media practitioners.  The Executive Director, Robert Ssempala says failure to prosecute offenders was fueling attacks against journalists. “Lack of good will to prosecute those who abused journalists has remained one of the biggest challenges we were facing. The level of professionalism is still low in Uganda because most employers cannot afford to pay qualified people. So, they go for people who feel privileged to work for that particular media house, however little money you will give them. Media houses have failed to plan exhaustively for the safety and security of journalists and most of them are in the field at God’s mercy”, he said. Mr. Ssempala further noted that through continuous engagement with various stakeholders both political and security officers, at least attacks by the army have gone down. He also believes that the government should introduce subsidies for media houses because the tax levied on them affects their ability to provide journalism as a public service.
“Community media cannot break even, upcountry media houses are struggling to exist yet they play essential roles in their respective locations,” he added.
Pamela Angwech, the Executive Director of Gulu Women Economic Development and Globalization (GWED-G) acknowledges the importance of implementing safety policies at different organizations and institutions. “The culture of respect and dignity is what we need to employ. You don’t have to wait for the policy but try to ensure everyone’s dignity is respected and not exploited as well so that the environment is good for a peaceful coexistence in workplaces. The policy helps employees to have in mind that they don’t need to behave in a bad manner because there is a policy he or she has endorsed.
She further appealed to other institutions to lobby for support so that they have these policies in place. “What we have noted is that not all institutions or organizations have this policy because they still lack resources to fund it”

According to the HRNJ press freedom index, assault was the most registered case of violation during 2021 with 63 incidents reported. Some 26 cases of arrest, blocking and denial of access at 8, damaged equipment 6 while other violations include cyber harassment among others. The same report showed that Uganda Police Force is leading in violation followed by Uganda People’s Defense Force UPDF, Special Forces Command. 
In total, 82 cases out of the 131 violations reported were directly attributed to Uganda Police Force with 43 during elections and campaign trails, 14 from the enforcement of COVID-19 prevention measures, 13 from criminal offenses and 12 from journalists covering other stories.
Meanwhile a total of 25 violations were committed by UPDF, Followed by Special Force Command 6 from the community, 4 from unknown, 3 from Residents District Commissioners, 2 from Members of Parliament, 2 from Uganda Communications Commission and 1 from a Chief Administrative Officer.
Uganda currently has 300 radio stations, 80 television stations, more than 9 newspapers in print and approximately 12.2 million internet users.
Despite this media diversity and plurality however, the country is far from embracing media freedom, with journalists often at the receiving end of police brutality.

The 2022 global press freedom index released by the Reporters Without Borders indicates that press freedom has continued to decline in Uganda, with the country ranking 132 out of 180 countries surveyed by the press freedom watchdog.
Uganda’s overall score declined to 46.5, down from 58.9 in 2021.

The article has been successfully purchased with a fundings from Media Freedom Committee on reporting Press Freedom in Uganda 

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