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Security forces increasingly target journalists as Uganda’s election nears

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As Uganda counts down days to its general election, attacks against members of the press by security forces are on the rise.

Journalists especially those covering opposition candidates and anti-government protests have been arrested, beaten or had their equipment confiscated or destroyed by the Police.

One press freedom watchdog says it has documented over 100 attacks since November when presidential nominations were held.

“These have been deliberate attacks where some officers have even warned journalists to shoot at them and have gone ahead to shoot at them occasioning injuries on them. This has never happened during an election in Uganda. We’ve not had a time as now when the deliberate attacks are not even condemned by the security leadership. The president has severally come out to attack the media as working for foreign agents, as being partisan, as promoting interests of the political opposition in the country, and of course the voice of the president is so strong that it pushes the security forces to act immediately on the journalists”, said Robert Ssempala, national coordinator of Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ).

Activists say security forces have enjoyed impunity for crimes against journalists.

In December, journalists in Kampala – some wearing bulletproof vests — staged a walkout from a government press conference in protest after two colleagues were shot covering opposition rallies.

One of the victims, Ashraf Kasirye is still recovering in hospital after he was shot in the head with a teargas canister.

“This is not indiscriminate fire,” said the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Uganda, citing a “consistent pattern of attacks” on media workers by security forces.

The Ugandan telecoms regulator wrote to YouTube’s parent company Google in December to request the blocking of Wine’s YouTube channel Ghetto TV, citing concerns over national security.

Just weeks before the election, meanwhile, foreign reporters have been deported, and press accreditations have been torn up, with all journalists told to reapply.

In December, the government decreed that only journalists accredited by the state-backed media regulator will be allowed to the elections due on January 14.

While there’s a law that mandates media workers to obtain permits from the media council, it has never been enforced until now.

In a message to police commanders across the east African country, the deputy of police said only reporters who present accreditation tags would be allowed to work.

Some journalists have complained that their applications have been rejected even after presenting all the necessary requirements.

The crackdown “exposes an unacceptable willingness to sacrifice the safety of journalists and the public’s right to information for the sake of censoring coverage” of the elections, said Muthoki Mumo from the Committee to Protect Journalists.