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Elections won't be free and fair without journalist safety, say IFEX members

Last month in Uganda, Top Radio reporter Paul Kiggundu was brutally attacked and killed by a mob while working on a story. Three days later, Radio Prime journalist Dickson Ssentongo was beaten to death on his way to work. Unless media violence stops and journalists are allowed to do their work freely, next year's general elections will not be free and fair, warn 28 IFEX members in a joint letter that will be used to lobby the candidates.

According to IFEX interim member Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda), which initiated the letter, more than 30 journalists reported harassment or abuse at the hands of state organs or mobs in the first half of 2010 alone. In the majority of cases, the crimes were committed with impunity.

Hardly surprising when you examine the suspects: the police were connected to 12 cases of abuse against journalists; eight others were linked to the state, political or paramilitary groups, reports HRNJ-Uganda.

Their findings were reinforced by a four-day mission in September 2010 by the International Freedom of Expression Partnership, which included delegates from ARTICLE 19, Freedom House, Media Foundation for Western Africa (MFWA), the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and local host the African Centre for Media Excellence.

The mission found that media practitioners, journalists, political cartoonists and activists in Uganda face grave and pervasive systemic and legal challenges to their liberty and safety, and are forced to work in an environment of widespread impunity.

And violence is only one tactic; the authorities are working on multiple fronts to silence dissident voices, says HRNJ-Uganda. In an attempt to halt political debate the chair of the Broadcasting Council, Godfrey Mutabazi, arbitrarily closed five radio stations in September 2009 during the Kampala riots, in which 21 people died and many were injured. Three stations have since been re-opened but under strict editorial conditions.

More recently, this April Mutabazi ordered privately-owned radio Voice of Lango to suspend two presenters for hosting the opposition group Uganda People's Congress leader Olara Otunnu.

In the letter, the IFEX members are calling for the Ugandan government to ensure that journalists are not silenced in the run-up to the elections in February 2011. "It is only with a free media that public affairs can be scrutinised, robust public debate can occur and corruption and other forms of malfeasance exposed," they point out.

Among their recommendations, the IFEX members demand that all errant officers are investigated, and that Parliament pass the anti-torture bill, which has been shelved for years, to help end impunity to perpetrators of the violence.

There's hope yet that the recommendations will be followed after recent free expression wins in Uganda. The IFEX members and the mission delegates were emboldened by the August 2010 "ground-breaking" decision by the Constitutional Court to abolish criminal sedition.

Just last week, a Ugandan Magistrates Court in Kampala applied the ruling and dismissed sedition charges against former radio presenter Robert Kalundi Serumaga, who faced six counts of sedition for making anti-President statements during the September 2009 Kampala riots, report HRNJ-Uganda and ARTICLE 19.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
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