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HRNJ-Uganda programmes coordinator briefly detained

(HRNJ-Uganda/IFEX) - Soroti, 28 February 2011 - Security operatives in the district of Mbale arrested Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) Programmes Coordinator Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala.

Ssebaggala was arrested at the Joint Clinic in Soroti Municipality, Eastern Uganda, at 3:00 p.m. on 27 February 2011, shortly after visiting and interviewing Julius Odeke, a purported journalist who was shot on 18 February.

An HRNJ-Uganda team was in the region to assess the environment within which journalists are operating and the possible support that could be extended to victims of rights violations. The team visited the districts of Bungokho, Mbale and Soroti.

"After an earlier interview with him at the clinic, I rang Odeke to get a telephone contact of a doctor to treat a journalist who had been beaten in Mbale. He asked me to go back to the clinic. Upon arriving there with a colleague, Jennifer Loy Akurut, Odeke pretended to be talking to the doctor but was instead calling security operatives. Shortly after, he came with three operatives. One of them identified himself as a police officer and two were from the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI). He ordered them to arrest me. They ordered me to surrender my cell phone, laptop, camera and notebook," said Ssebaggala. "All this time Odeke was shouting, accusing me of interfering with his life. He at some point said he could even kill me because he was so disappointed with HRNJ-Uganda, which he accused of jeopardizing his relations with the army."

The arrest and detention inside the clinic lasted for about 30 minutes. "They released me after deleting all the interview materials and photographs I had taken while interviewing Odeke," Ssebaggala said. "Odeke denied getting any support form HRNJ-Uganda, instead praising the army, which had ordered his evacuation from the Mbale hospital to Soroti. I later learned that Odeke had a meeting with army officials a day earlier (on 25 February) in Soroti town. I believe Odeke is a security plant spying on fellow journalists and opposition politicians."

Odeke claims to work for the "Red Pepper" publication. He was shot on 18 February in a scuffle between the opposition Forum for Democratic Change's (FDC) Nandala Mafabi and Minister for the Presidency Beatrice Wabudeya, who were seeking election to the Budari West parliamentary seat. Mafabi won the seat.

Based on what took place, HRNJ-Uganda believes that Odeke orchestrated Ssebaggala's arrest in an attempt to frustrate the efforts of the organization in its bid to uphold journalists' rights and freedoms. HRNJ-Uganda is therefore withdrawing any form of support for Odeke.

HRNJ-Uganda's role in promoting human rights includes support for genuine journalists since they are counted as human rights defenders who speak for the poor, the oppressed and the voiceless.

HRNJ-Uganda defends genuine journalists in order to promote human dignity and human rights, especially the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information.

HRNJ-Uganda would like to note that it has limited resources, which cannot be committed to spies who have occupied space at the expense of genuine practitioners.

"The arrest of Mr. Ssebaggala is an insult and affront to the profession. These types of actions must be fought by all stakeholders. We are very concerned about the way in which security agencies have occupied the operating space for true journalists," said HRNJ-Uganda Board Chairman Robert Ssempala.

HRNJ-Uganda calls on the army to guarantee the safety and security of journalists in Uganda.

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