By Our Reporter
On February 17, military police beat at least ten journalists covering Uganda’s opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi — also known as Bobi Wine’ — as he delivered a petition to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Kampala. His petition was to protest human rights abuses and the abductions of his supporters in the run-up to and after January’s contested presidential election.
The next day, the army issued an apology for the beatings and announced that a military court had given seven members of the military police a “severe reprimand” for assaulting the journalists, and sentenced them to two months detention in a military facility. While an important step, the army did not share details about its investigations or the military trial process. Two of the assaulted journalists told Human Rights Watch they had not even been informed about the proceedings far less called to testify.
Supporters by The United Nations in Uganda has since condemned the brutality meted out against journalists and people who had accompanied Robert Kyagulanyi.
The UN, in a statement, said this behaviour contravenes the agreement with the Government of Uganda regarding the safety and security of UN premises, personnel and guests as well as national and international commitments.“The Republic of Uganda is a member of the United Nations and has conveyed in the past its commitment to peace, justice, human rights and development. The UN calls on the Government to immediately investigate this incident and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice,” the UN said.
The UN has promised to investigate the human rights violations during the electoral process.“In accordance with established procedures, OHCHR will immediately study these allegations and take the appropriate actions. The United Nations Resident Coordinator will share copies of this petition with the host government and United Nations Headquarters. The United Nations in Uganda wishes to recognize that the Uganda Police Force Very Important Persons Protection Unit (VVIPU) abided by established procedures which enabled the NUP leadership to have a peaceful meeting at the OHCHR office in Kampala,” the UN said.
Violence against journalists in Uganda is not new. During the recent election campaign, security forces beat and shot at journalists who were covering opposition rallies.
In November 2020, police shot Moses Bwayo in the face with a rubber bullet as he filmed Kyagulanyi arriving at his party’s office, and in December the journalist Ashraf Kasirye was badly injured after police shot him while covering a Kyagulanyi rally. Security forces have also beaten journalists covering student protests and used enforcement of Covid-19 regulations, as a pretext for other beatings.
The authorities have even threatened direct violence against journalists. On January 8, police chief Martin Okoth Ochola said at a news conference ahead of the elections that, “we shall beat you [journalists] for your own sake.”
Ugandan law incorporates many of the government’s human rights obligations, including protection for freedoms of speech and assembly, a prohibition on torture and inhumane and degrading treatment, and explicitly provides for the prosecution of officials committing such abuses.
The authorities should uphold these laws and build on the measures taken against the military police, including reforming the security sector, conducting transparent investigations and fair trials for abuses against journalists and others, and properly compensating victims.