The Ugandan Government has been cracking down on radio stations and journalists in the wake of violent clashes between police and protesters in early September.
Uganda has a diverse, vibrant media scene with over 50 radio stations, three TV networks and a mix of daily and weekly print publications. Press freedom expanded greatly in 1986 when the current government took power and guerrilla leader Museveni became president musette.
But government is blaming the media for instigating and stoking the protests which swept through central Uganda early in September. Five stations had their licenses yanked in a broad warning to media throughout the country to watch their mouth when it comes to politics. At least 20 journalists, photographers working the street protests were arrested during the violence
A popular talk show host was jailed and charged with sedition, and new bill has been introduced in Parliament to license journalists with the ability to pull the licenses if the government objects to their reporting.
Despite periodic government efforts to muzzle the media, the nation has a strong tradition of independent journalism.
Peter Mwesige's column in the monitor was canceled several years ago under government pressure when he criticized the ruling party. The former columnist and journalism professor is now a media consultant. He told me government attacks on the press will continue and become fiercer as we get closer to the 2011 elections. There's widespread dissatisfaction because of economic issues, and Museveni's re-election strategy will feature rigging votes and silencing dissenters, Mwesige said.
Andrew Mwenda is founder and editor of the Independent Magazine which has been a persistent critic of President Museveni and the ruling NRM party since it was founded in 2007. I was able to interview him just a couple days before he was scheduled to appear in court on sedition charges. He cheerfully quoted to me the motto on the back cover of every issue: “You Buy the Truth, We Pay the Price.”
Mwenda says he expected government would try to silence him when he founded the magazine in 2007. So it didn't come as a surprise when he was himself charged with sedition after he wrote unflattering comments about President Museveni in an editorial.
The government attack on the media is "A sign of weakness...the last kicks of a dying horse," he told me. He says Museveni's winning margin has steadily declined in the last three elections, and that its virtually impossible for him to win without a run-off. The 18-30 age voters are a majority, and won't vote for Musevini, Mwenda says.
Mwenda was charged with sedition weeks before the September riots. He responded to the charges by filing a lawsuit in constitutional court claiming his right of freedom of speech was threatened. The sedition case can't be heard until his constitutional claim is ruled on.
I also interviewed a top government official...the Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity who told me this whole idea that journalists should be allowed to write or say anything they want is "Very Strange." The Minister, James Nsaba Butoro says western ideas of media freedom are not appropriate for Uganda. He likened the Kampala protests to the Rwandan genocide, and said the government had to act quickly to avoid disaster. He told me the government should train, license and supervise all journalists.
Its hard to believe the government is serious about the licensing law, but its clear that threatening and intimidating the media is part of their election strategy. So far they haven't intimidated Andrew Mwenda who told me the Sedition Law, under which he is charged for defaming Pres. Musevini is unconstitutional. "I broke the law yesterday," he said, "I break it today and I will break it again tomorrow."