Thursday, February 24, 2011

Uganda: Stick-wielding thugs assault six journalists

Source: International Freedom of Expression Exchange and Human Rights Network for Journalists

Kampala, 23 February 2011 - Stick-wielding thugs with links to the Kampala mayoral candidate for the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, Peter Ssematimba, assaulted six journalists at the Kakeeka polling station, in Rubaga Parish, in Kampala's Lubaga division. On 23 February, Ugandans were voting for the local Council Five chairperson and district councillors.

There are indications that the hooligans formulated a plan to beat up journalists since they called media houses to say that Ssematimba was going to vote at the Kakeeka polling station at 10:00 a.m. and they requested a media presence. Ssematimba had, in fact, voted earlier than the time indicated. The plan to beat up journalists resulted from widespread coverage highlighting election irregularities where several ballot boxes were found to be filled with pre-ticked ballots favouring Ssematimba.

"We were tricked into thinking that Ssematimba was going to vote at Kakeeka. Many of us went, but when we got there we found hooligans throwing stones at police and polling officials and we started recording," said one of the victims, journalist Florence Nabukeera. She said the violence was sparked when questions were raised about the volume of ballots stuffed in the ballot boxes when only a small number of voters had turned up.

Nixon Bbaale, a camera operator with Channel 44 TV, sustained a serious cut to his head while covering the scuffle at the Kakeeka polling station. He was admitted to the Mengo Hospital in critical condition. Brian Nsimbe, a reporter for Channel 44 TV, was assaulted and sustained an injury to one of his arms. He was admitted to the Mengo Hospital and later discharged. Nabukeera, a reporter with Bukedde FM, was also violently beaten at the Kakeeka polling station. According to her medical report, she developed a clot in her left arm which had swollen. She was being treated at the Rubaga Hospital. Christine Namatumbwe, a reporter and Luganda News anchor at Metro FM, was also roughed up and sustained several injuries to her right arm. Her recorder, mobile phone and handbag were all stolen. She was taken to the Rubaga Hospital for treatment and later discharged.

Metro FM editor Hasfa Namuli told the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) that by the time of the attack, Namatumbwe was reporting live from the polling station about a scuffle between Ssematimba and another candidate, Erias Lukwago.

Jane Anyango, a senior reporter with Uganda Broadcasting Corporation Television, was also violently assaulted at the Kakeeka polling station. Anyango received serious injuries to her face, with blood oozing from her mouth. She also sustained injuries to one of her legs, as well as bruising on her buttocks, and was in acute pain. She is undergoing treatment at the Mayor Clinic. She told HRNJ-Uganda that the victims who were interviewed previously alleged that Ssematimba had hired thugs to assault journalists and supporters of his rivals. "I saw them armed with sticks with nails and stones, ready to assault us. The hired hooligans traveled in four taxis to the scene of the crime," Anyango said.

"We are worried about the escalating cases of violence against journalists in Uganda. This is the highest number of victims in one day about which we have been notified since the beginning of the electoral process in November in 2010," said HRNJ-Uganda Programmes Coordinator Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala.

The assault on the journalists took place in the presence of an armed police constable who simply looked on. In this election, frontline journalists, photographers and camera operators and their equipment are being targeted following the media coverage that unearthed the election irregularities that marred the recently concluded presidential and parliamentary elections.

In the meantime, HRNJ-Uganda also recorded a case in which four journalists, including Steven Mbidde, of K FM, and Michael Kigozi, a presenter and reporter with Radio One, as well as two female journalists from Bukedde TV, were cut-off by stick-wielding thugs at the Super FM radio station. Police officers rescued them before the situation got out of hand.

Lydia Nabazziwa, one of the Bukedde TV reporters, sustained a serious injury to her right ear, requiring an operation at the Kololo Hospital. She had gone to Super FM following reports that completed ballots had been dropped in a toilet. The radio station is owned by Ssematimba.

Previously, during the presidential and parliamentary elections, journalist Julius Odeke was shot in the ribs and journalist Gerald Mutembu was assaulted. HRNJ-Uganda condemns these violent actions against journalists in the strongest terms possible and pledges to work with the police to ensure that those who were involved in these incidents are arrested and brought to justice.

The local election that was characterized by ballot stuffing has been suspended following the media reports on the irregularities.