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Journalists face ongoing threats, harassment

UPDATE: Court sets date to hear journalist bail's application (HRNJ-Uganda, 20 June 2012)

(HRNJ-Uganda/IFEX) – The Kitgum-based host of the radio talk-show Mighty Fire, Stephen Komakech, has been threatened by district security officials over his journalistic work.

Komakech, who is also a reporter, has allegedly received the threats from the Resident District Commissioner, the Pagimu - Brigade Intelligence Officer, and the District Internal Security Officer, among others. They have accused him of airing news pieces that are critical of the government.

Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) has noted that the radio station and Komakech have been instrumental in the trial of Kitgum RDC Lieutenant Okot Santo Lapolo over corruption and abuse of office. Since September 2011, Lapolo has been under investigation over allegations that he diverted more than 1,700 pieces of iron sheets intended for internally displaced people in northern Uganda for his own personal gain.

On 14 November Komakech narrowly missed being kidnapped on his way back from attending the Lapolo trial at the Anti-Corruption Court in Kampala. On 18 November, Komakech received phone calls from security circles summoning him for interrogation. Information obtained by HRNJ-Uganda indicates that on 19 November, there were several failed attempts to arrest Komakech and the radio station's acting manager.

"I wanted to use the night bus back to Kitgum but at around 3:00, I received a call from security circles telling me that if I was at the radio station, I should leave because plain clothed security operatives had been dispatched to arrest me," Komakech said. He delayed his trip back to Kitgum to the following morning when he got the whole story of the sinister plot against him and his colleagues.

"A credible source within the security told me that I would be picked up together with my Acting Manager for interrogation and then the probability of returning is zero," said Komakech.

The Kitgum District Police Commander, Nasur Oringa, denied any involvement in threatening Komakech.

Meanwhile, in northern Uganda, journalists Patrick Otim of Mega FM and Augustine Okello of Rhino FM are being detained in Luzira prison on treason charges. The two journalists were brought to court through a habeus corpus.

"We condemn in the strongest terms possible the manner in which public officials use their office to intimidate journalists and the entire journalism profession in the region. We are not surprised that the former war-torn region has two journalists languishing in prison on treason charges without being tried," said HRNJ-Uganda Board Chairman Robert Ssempala.

HRNJ-Uganda calls on the Uganda Human Rights Commission, United Nations Office of High Commission for Human Rights and appointing authorities of these officials to intervene, investigate the conduct of these district officials and take appropriate action once found guilty.

In a separate incident, the Kalanga district correspondent for the Central Broadcasting Service (CBS FM), Ronald Ssembuusi, is reported to have received death threats from former Kalangala boss Daniel Kikola over a news story.

The threats stem from a news story aired on 17 November alleging that the former district boss was under investigation for his involvement in the disappearance of solar panels. More than 80 solar panels were donated by the African Development Bank through the ministry of water and environment in 2010 to help in circulating clean and safe water in Kalangala Town Council. Unfortunately, about 40 are missing.

HRNJ-Uganda has learnt that after the story was aired, Kikola called and invited Ssembuusi to his home but the journalist declined. Several calls followed and Kikola allegedly asked the journalist why he refused to go to his residence. As he was hanging up his last call, he allegedly threatened the complainant that "something strange will happen to him."

Ssembuusi reports that he has filed a case at the Kalangala police station. When HRNJ-Uganda contacted Kikola, he confirmed that he had called the journalist but denied threatening him. However, he outlined plans to drag the journalist to court for defamation.

HRNJ-Uganda welcomes the initiative taken by the journalist for reporting the matter to authorities because many cases have gone unreported "due to the inferiority complex amongst journalists in Uganda," said Ssempala. HRNJ-Uganda calls upon the police to expeditiously investigate the threats against the journalist.
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