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HRNJ-Uganda demands investigation of judge's conduct towards journalists

UPDATE: Commission starts investigation into Justice Faith Mwondha's conduct against the media (HRNJ-Uganda, 13 April 2012)

(HRNJ-Uganda/IFEX) - Entebe, 14 Feb. 2012 - Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is dismayed by the conduct of Justice Faith Mwonda in blocking the media from covering open court proceedings that she presides over.

On Friday, 10th/Feb/2012, four journalists were blocked from covering court proceedings presided over by Justice Mwonda in the High Court of Entebe, where a High Court Circuit was set up to handle a backlog of cases and expedite the disposal of pending matters, including cases involving aggravated robbery, murder, defilement and rape.

The victims include Yasin Kintu of the New Vision group, Tony Muyanja of Red Pepper, Henry Oketch of Radio Simba and Kikongo Ssebalamu of Vision Group, working for Bukkedde TV and paper.

It started when during a court process, a police officer of the VPPU status approached Kintu and Muyanja in court, from where they were seated and taking notes, and asked if they were journalists. When they answered in the affirmative, they were called outside to identify themselves, which they did, only to be told that they were not free to go back into the courtroom since they had not sought Justice Mwonda's permission to be in court. They were blocked from re-entering the courtroom. The police officers said they were acting on the orders of Justice Mwonda.

Henry Oketch and Kigongo Ssebalamu were blocked right at the court entrance by the two police officers, including one Zziwa with police number 32916. Zziwa pushed Ssebalamu downstairs from the second floor. The journalists insisted on knowing why they were being blocked from covering an open court session, but the police officers maintained that they were not allowed to cover the court proceedings. A scuffle ensued until an office assistant and another person from the court came and told them to enter but without cameras.

When Ssebalamu insisted on filming the proceedings, he was arrested by two police officers who took him, along with Oketch, to Entebe police, and presented them to the DPC of Entebe, Edgar Nyabongo. Nyabongo said he was acting on the orders of Justice Mwonda to charge the two with contempt of court. He charged them and cautioned them never to go back to Mwonda's court sessions with a camera. He released them shortly after. The scuffle was filmed as it unfolded.

HRNJ-Uganda spoke with all four victims. They gave individual accounts of what happened. Two of them, Yasin Kintu and Henry Oketch, addressed a press conference organized by HRNJ-Uganda in Kampala and narrated their ordeal. They said they are scared of going back to court sessions presided over by Justice Mwonda for fear of repercussions.

The DPC, Nyabongo, told HRNJ-Uganda that he was acting on orders of Mwonda. “They were cautioned over contempt of court. You know the judge has powers to allow in cameras or not. I was not in court, so for details you call Justice Mwonda.”

Justice Mwonda is no stranger to such controversy. Journalists in Entebe said that they suffered the same wrath last year, still at the hands of Justice Mwonda, when she threw them out for no good reason.

In a similar manner, while presiding over a High Court session in Jinja, she sent away reporters from covering the proceedings, saying she did not need that form of publicity. The Daily Monitor quoted her as having told off journalists who went to her office to find out why the policemen had stopped them from covering the court proceedings.

“You people, I understand you are from the media, why are you following me? I come to court to work and I don't work through the press; I don't need publicity. . . You should first study judges who want cameras. Go away until my session is over.” She has not dismissed this fact.

Another Red Pepper journalist, Tom Kalamula, told HRNJ-Uganda that Justice Mwonda had suspended him and the Red Pepper from covering court proceedings in Nakawa Court.

The same judge, while still Inspector General of Government (IGG), caused the arrest of a Daily Monitor photo journalist, Stephen Otage, on July 21st 2009, for photographing her outside the court house.

She also took a criminal libel lawsuit against four Daily Monitor journalists, including Emmanuel Gyezaho, Robert Kalumba, Bana Tabaire and Joachim Buwembo, for raising questions about her salary in 2007. These journalists have since challenged the libel law in the Supreme Court, which has not yet ruled on the matter.

“We are greatly concerned about this conduct by Justice Mwonda in taking it upon herself to systematically block the eyes and ears of the public under unclear circumstances. This conduct is an insult to the media and it greatly impedes our work,” said HRNJ-Uganda Board Chairperson, Mulindwa Mukasa.

HRNJ-Uganda has therefore decided to petition the Judicial Service Commission, the Principal Judge, and the Chief Justice, among others, demanding an investigation into this matter, and that appropriate action be taken to restrain Justice Mwonda from infringing on journalists' rights and freedoms.

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