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IFEX members call on President to investigate attacks on journalists ahead of elections

"Summit Business Review" staff were arrested and detained in relation to the publication of this cartoon of President Museveni on the magazine's cover

Ugandan journalists preparing to cover presidential elections on 18 February have been threatened and assaulted, while opposition parties have been denied access to the media. Amid the political tensions and security concerns, 34 IFEX members are calling on the Ugandan President to immediately investigate all attacks on journalists and urge media houses to provide equal opportunities to all election candidates.

At least 10 journalists have been assaulted in election-related incidents since November 2010, when campaigning started, report the Human Rights Network for Journalists Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who led the IFEX joint action.

For example, journalist Michael Kakumirizi of the Ugandan tabloid "Red Pepper" was attacked on 19 January by supporters of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) in Alebeatong. On 20 January, journalist Issa Aliga of NTV and editor Ssozi Ssekimpi of Top Radio Masaka were both assaulted by a local Member of Parliament.

Most disturbing is the case of journalist Arafat Nzito of Radio Simba who disappeared on 4 November, was assaulted and then eventually dumped in a suburb of Kampala by security agents, say the members. Nzito, who often reported news from the leading opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was never charged.

Nzito told CPJ, "I have been dreaming about dark rooms, beatings and being held at gunpoint. I am just scared for my life, and I can't communicate, work or move freely." Nzito's ordeal forced him to move, just to have the flexibility of leaving the station before it gets dark outside.

Independent journalists and those who provide a platform for voices of opposition parties also face censorship, threats and detention. Take Mustapha Mugisa and Samuel Ssejjaaka, respectively the chief executive officer and editor of the "Summit Business Review" magazine. They were arrested by security forces and detained by police on 11 January for publishing a cartoon image of President Yoweri Museveni on the magazine's cover.

In another case, police in Lira warned journalists against giving voice to several Ugandan nongovernmental organisations that raised serious concerns about how public funds are being used, particularly to support the ruling party, reports Human Rights Watch. Since 5 February, police have intimidated, arrested and detained 16 people who distributed the statement.

Opposition candidates themselves are being silenced by private radio stations. FDC leader Dr. Besigye was turned away from appearing on Radio Kitara, Spice FM and Kings Radio on 2 January; all three stations are owned by ruling party supporters. In Nakaseke district, Besigye paid for space on a community radio talk show, but found the station locked and surrounded by anti-riot police when he arrived.

"These incidents demonstrate that media houses are not adhering to their licensing obligations that include providing an equal platform to all candidates and promoting freedom of expression," says the joint statement. "This also shows that the obligations are not beings enforced by the Broadcasting Council, whose role it is to insure there is no political interference in the media."

Meanwhile, draft legislation threatens to restrict the right to free speech and peaceful assembly. The 2009 Public Management Order Bill being prepared in parliament grants the Inspector General of Police and the Minister of Internal Affairs arbitrary powers over the management of public meetings, says the statement.

Museveni came to power in 1986, following a protracted rebellion. After elections marked by violence in 2001, the president pushed through an amendment to the constitution in 2005 that nullified Uganda's two-term presidential limit. This election is just the second since 1986 in which opposition parties have been legally permitted to campaign.

HRNJ-Uganda has set up a toll-free helpline for journalists: +256 800 144 155.

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