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Crackdown on radio journalists

Power struggles between President Museveni and the Buganda kingdom spur riots in Kampala; the state shuts down radio stations in retaliation
Power struggles between President Museveni and the Buganda kingdom spur riots in Kampala; the state shuts down radio stations in retaliation

James Akena/Reuters

A spasm of violence shook Uganda last week in a power struggle between the government and the Buganda kingdom. State-run Uganda Broadcasting Council shut down radio stations on 11 September, ordering a halt to political debate and commentary on clashes in the capital, Kampala, according to the Media Institute (MI), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other IFEX members.

News reports say tensions over land and power between President Yoweri Museveni's government and Buganda, one of the East African country's four historical kingdoms, boiled over on 12 September. Police blocked the Buganda monarch, known as the Kabaka, from visiting a flashpoint town east of the capital on territory claimed by his kingdom. Along with rumours of arrests of Buganda leaders, it was a catalyst for riots in Kampala and several central towns. Local media say at least 21 people died and over 500 were arrested. Tensions have been building between the kingdom and the government since President Museveni refused to grant Buganda semi-autonomous status through federalism five years ago, says MI.

Daniel Kalinaki, managing editor of Uganda's independent "Daily Monitor" newspaper told "Reuters" that the government was caught off guard by the protests, and shut down the Central Broadcasting Service (CBS) to cut the link between the kingdom's leaders and rank-and-file members on the streets. "Without a coherent message from the centre, the rioting became localised and criminalised as gangs ... took to indiscriminate violence and looting, quickly turning many of the people who would otherwise support the visit into its victims."

"The government banned live radio debate programmes known as "ebimeeza" on the grounds that radio stations were unable to control their content, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Council agents backed by soldiers seized transmitting equipment, crippling CBS, reported CPJ. Council technicians and soldiers also raided Radio Sapientia, a Catholic-run station and Suubi, a commercial, youth-oriented station. Radio Two Akaboozi Kubiri was also suspended. Information minister Kabakumba Matsiko accused the stations of inciting riots, says RSF.

"The closure of CBS is a big blow to the independent media in the country, which is hurtling towards general elections in 2011," says MI. "It is the only radio that had withstood state intimidation largely because it enjoyed the special status of being owned by the Buganda Kingdom."

A widely respected journalist, filmmaker and talk-show host of Radio One's "Spectrum," Kalundi Sserumaga, was abducted outside WBS Television on 11 September after criticising Museveni in a television debate, says RSF and the International PEN's Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC).

The WiPC reported on 14 September that Sserumaga had been transferred to a hospital to receive treatment for injuries he sustained as a result of severe police beatings. He told reporters he expected to stay in hospital for at least a day, but that he would be returned to police detention. Human Rights Watch reports that on 15 September he was charged with six counts of sedition and released on bail.

"The government is employing sweeping measures and making broad assertions to crack down on critical media," CPJ said. "They're not fooling anyone."

IFEX members are preparing a joint letter to President Museveni condemning recent attacks on the media and calling for the government to uphold freedom of expression rights, which is being released on 17 September.

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