Rights Activists Call for Release of Detained Ugandan Journalists

Ugandan lawyers and rights activists are demanding the release of an author and eight journalists detained since Thursday.  The author is a critic of President Yoweri Museveni.  Ugandan police say they were taken into custody after complaints of “offensive communication” from members of the public. 

On Thursday, nine journalists led by Norman Tumuhimbise – an author of books critical of President Museveni and his family — were arrested at their offices by what lawyers describe as a joint security team of the Uganda Police Force and soldiers of the Uganda People’s Defense Forces.

Documents presented to court state that the security personnel were armed with deadly weapons and brandished them “with gusto” as they stormed into the offices and made the arrests. 

All nine of those arrested work for Digitalk, an online TV station led by Tumuhimbise.

Tumuhimbise was due to launch a book critical of President Yoweri Museveni on March 30.

His lawyer, Geoffrey Turyamusima, speaking to VOA after appearing in court Tuesday. He says the arrests show the government does not respect the public’s right to free speech.

“There has been continuous threats, especially for those who come out to speak the truth or the reality,” said Turyamusima. “And the state does not want people to know the truth, especially in regards to infringing on people’s right.”

Fred Enanga, the Uganda Police Force spokesperson, confirmed to journalists Monday that they are being held at the Special Investigations Division (SID) in Kampala.

“We always get complaints of offensive communication, hate crimes and polarization from certain sections of the public and concerned authorities. So, they were arrested along that,” said Enanga. “And, they are at SID in Kireka. There’s a joint task team that is handling their matter.”

Robert Sempala, the national coordinator the Uganda Human Rights Network, says the journalists are being held incommunicado and the state should have only arrested Tumuhimbise instead of the whole newsroom.

Sempala says the state is trying to intimidate media outlets that air criticism of the president, causing a chilling effect.

“Meaning, they will even arrest you, torture you, detain you incommunicado, take you to court when there’s a lot of noise and they have no convicting evidence in any case,” said Sempala. “So, the implication is that the media is strictly being shrank going by the different manifestations that the powerful are resorting to.”

The arrest of Tumuhimbise and eight journalists comes just a month after Pen International award-winning author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was arrested, tortured and detained.

He was also charged with offensive communication for Twitter posts in which he made derogatory remarks about the president’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who is widely seen as Museveni’s possible successor.

Another author, Stella Nyanzi, was arrested in 2019 and jailed for 18 months for a poem criticizing the first family.

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