Tensions remained high at the Daily Monitor office on Thursday, three days after police raided it and three other establishments as “a matter of national security”. Police appeared to disregard a court order to vacate the premises they searched on Monday, and continue to occupy the office, barring staff members from entering the premises. The Monitor’s printing press remains inoperable.
On Monday, Ugandan Police raided the Kampala offices of the Daily Monitor – an independent, daily newspaper with the motto “Truth Everyday” – and Red Pepper, a tabloid popular with many Ugandans. Two radio stations were also taken off the air.
The Daily Monitor’s Managing Director, Alex Asiimwe, said that police were attempting to shut down operations by disabling “the printing press, computer servers and radio transmission equipment. The intention was to prevent the Monitor from operating, broadcasting and printing its newspapers”. According to the Daily Monitor’s own article on the events, “police electricians also were called in to disconnect the offices from the grid”.
Thursday’s court order compelled police to vacate the premises of the Daily Monitor, but the Deputy Police Spokesperson, Patrick Onyango, said that the police were still acting lawfully, commenting that “Section 27 of the Police Act empowers police, with or with [sic] the warrant, to search the premises”.
The official reason for Monday’s raid was to retrieve a letter written by General David Sejusa, which claimed President Yoweri Museveni is grooming his son, Brigadier Kainerugaba Muhoozi, to take over from him when his term ends in 2016, and which called for an investigation into attempts "to assassinate people who disagree with this so-called family project of holding onto power in perpetuity".
Minister of Information and National Guidance, Mary Karooro Okurut, released a statement “to reassure Ugandans that the government is not interfering with press freedom”. The statement says that police raided the offices “on the heels of the utterances made by Gen. David Sejusa, aka Tenyefunza which have caused undue excitement”, adding “This is being treated as a matter of national security”.
Okurut did not, however, elaborate as to how exactly the letter threatens national security, nor as to how raiding press offices was not interfering with press freedom.
Late on Wednesday, a motion put forward by a group of lawmakers in parliament seeking to force the government to re-open the closed media organisations was blocked by deputy speaker Jacob Oulanyah.
Tensions between the ruling party and the press have been high in Uganda in recent years. In a report published in late 2011, Amnesty International alleged that journalists have been spuriously arrested on charges of sedition, harassed by the police, and in some cases “subjected to human rights violations, including torture and other ill-treatment in custody before being charged in court”.
The report says that during and after the February 2011 elections, “Journalists were physically assaulted in a number of instances…by aides or supporters of political candidates, the police or security personnel while reporting violations to the electoral process including political violence”. In cases highlighted by Amnesty International, the police failed to investigate or arrest the suspected assailants.
Bernard Tabaire, a former Managing Editor at the Daily Monitor, investigated relations between the ruling party and the press from independence to the current era. He found that, “Since the 1960s – the tragic first decade of independence – charges of sedition, criminal libel and false news have been frequently used in the efforts of Uganda’s government to muzzle a free press.”
He noted that while the Museveni regime is regarded as being more liberal towards the press than the Milton Obote or Idi Amin regimes, it has at times “cracked down on publications that dissent too radically”. This is done in two main ways: “(i) use of the courts of law to pile pressure on nosy journalists and force them to self-censor; (ii) the targeting of Daily Monitor as a salutary ‘lesson’ to other publications and to the government’s political opponents.”
If the current events are an example of the latter, it remains uncertain how long the lesson will last. The Daily Monitor’s printing presses remain inoperable and it is not clear when they will resume printing.
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