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Radio One journalist hospitalised; two journalists suspended over radio reports

In wake of deadly Uganda riots: journalist beaten and detained; four radio stations closed
Radio One journalist hospitalized, accused of sedition and inciting violence, TV show host tells IPI

(IPI/IFEX) - 15 September 2009 - In the wake of deadly riots last week in the Ugandan capital Kampala, sparked by the controversial visit of a traditional king, a radio journalist was beaten and arrested, according to a fellow Ugandan journalist.

News reports said that the Uganda Broadcasting Council (UBC) also closed several radio stations and suspended radio and television journalists, while security forces detained and beat at least two other reporters.

The violent riots, which left at least 11 dead, began after the government made a visit by the traditional king of Buganda, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, to the ethnically sensitive Kayunga region - nominally part of his kingdom - conditional on his holding talks with local leaders. The king's supporters felt they were being prevented from seeing him.

On Thursday and Friday the supporters set up barricades in Kampala, at times battling the police. The king later decided to cancel his trip to the disputed region.

Robert Kalundi Sserumaga, a talk-show host with Radio One, was arrested and beaten on Friday night while leaving the studios of the WBS TV station, where he had just participated in a live discussion about the riots, according to Peter Kibazo, who hosts the show on which Sserumaga appeared and was there when the arrest took place.

Kibazo told IPI that Sserumaga was in hospital on Monday for injuries received from security agents and remains in detention, accused of sedition and inciting violence.

Kibazo said that he watched three young men approach Sserumaga, who became upset and asked to see their identification. The security agents then allegedly flashed an unreadable card before forcing Sserumaga into the boot of a small Toyota.

According to Kibazo and other local sources, Sserumaga was first held by the Joint Anti-terrorism Task Force (JATT), an intelligence branch that a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year accused of using torture. On Saturday the journalist was moved to the Central Police Station in Kampala.

Sserumaga, who claimed to news sources that he was tortured, was admitted to hospital on Sunday to treat injuries he received during and following his arrest. He was expected to appear in court on Tuesday. The police Inspector General told news media that the journalist had committed a "grave offence" and would be charged with sedition and incitement to violence.

"IPI calls on the authorities to either charge Sserumaga or release him immediately," said IPI Director David Dadge. "It is unacceptable that a country like Uganda, which has a vibrant media, should return to the oppressive tactic of beatings and random arrests. If Sserumaga has said something the authorities find inappropriate, they should channel complaints to his station or to a self-regulatory body such as the Independent Media Council. IPI believes that physical abuse is never acceptable."

On Saturday, the morning after Sserumaga's arrest, a separate weekly news roundup show hosted by Peter Kibazo on Radio Simba was interrupted by a phone call from UBC chairman Godfrey Mutabazi, who requested that producers "either cut (Kibazo) off or turn off the radio," the journalist told IPI.

Later that afternoon, the UBC again contacted Radio Simba, announcing that 'Binsangawano' show host Charles James Ssenkubuge Siasa had been suspended because of comments made on his show the previous morning. However, after it was clarified that Siasa had not actually hosted his show the previous morning, the suspension was lifted. The UBC's Mutabazi then requested a list of the show's presenters, from which he chose two names for suspension.

Siasa told IPI that the two, Andrew Benon Kibuuka and Gold Kimatono, were now under indefinite suspension, and station managers had accepted responsibility for comments made on Friday's show that might have demeaned the president. However, the show itself is still airing.

Four radio stations were closed on 10-11 September, local sources told IPI. Two Central Broadcasting Service stations, owned by the Kingdom of Buganda, went off the air on Thursday afternoon. The next day, radio stations Akaboozi Ku Bbiri (Radio Two), Radio Sapienta and Ssuubi FM were raided by soldiers and closed down, local news outlets reported. Information Minister Kabakumba Matsiko announced in a statement on Friday that the stations had "systematically incited the listeners to cause chaos and destruction wherever they could."

"The International Press Institute calls for the immediate lifting of the arbitrary suspension of these journalists," said IPI Director David Dadge. "While news media must live up to the standards of codes of practise and self-regulatory bodies, it is unacceptable for the Ugandan government to use suspensions and the withdrawal of stations' operating licenses as tools to hinder the flow of information."

Although press freedom groups have recently raised concerns about press freedom conditions in Uganda, the media is nonetheless generally vibrant.

Journalist Siasa said: "The president has usually been a defender of freedom of the press. I don't know what he was so afraid of those two days." Siasa explained that Museveni usually tackled media criticism head on, through statements to the media. "He shocked us," he added.

Stations now appear to be avoiding political discussion. "It's good for listeners who like music," said Siasa. "More music, less talk."
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