Ugandan government clamps down on journalists for reporting on Bobi Wine case

Uganda's communications commission has suspended over 30 journalists for their roles in reporting about the arrest of opposition figure Bobi Wine. He faces trial for staging a protest and has since been released on bail.

A government body that regulates Uganda's media has ordered the suspension of producers, head of news and head of programs of 13 broadcasting stations after reporting on the case of Ugandan pop star turned politician Bobi Wine (real name Kyagulanyi Ssentamu).

The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) cited "concerns over the nature of content aired on these broadcast stations" claiming the journalists gave sensational coverage to Wine.

This comes after journalists reported on Wine's court hearings. Wine who has hinted at running for president in 2021 against longtime President Yoweri Museveni faces trial over staging a street protest last July against a social media tax. He also faces separate treason charges.

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"As Uganda gets ready to mark this year's World Press Freedom Day, it's saddening to learn of the continued infringement of media rights by several government agencies," the president of the Uganda Journalists Association, Haji Kazibwe Bashir Mbaziira, said in a statement.

'Another step in the wrong direction'

"This is another step in the wrong direction by the 'regulators' as we seek to build and have a freely conducive and productively progressive media landscape in Uganda," he added.

"In total over 30 journalists are on the verge of losing their jobs and this will not only affect their lives and profession, but millions of Ugandans are set to miss out on the services of these dedicated men and women of the fourth estate."

Kin Kariisa, the chairperson of the National Broadcasters Association (NAB), says the UCC has overstepped its mandate. "We are engaging them first as individual media houses; then after we are meeting as NAB to see what we need to do such that we check the excesses of the regulator," he told DW.

Francis Babu, a member of President Museveni's ruling National Resistance Movement who also owns a radio station, says the reasons behind the move by UCC are political.

"I do agree that sometimes during a broadcast a few things go through," he told DW. "But I think the reason has been political and they are using UCC to solve that problem. That is not the way to solve these problems." 

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"To sack presenters, to threaten media to write letters, I think that's very unfortunate," he added.

Journalists also said they are receiving threatening phone calls from alleged state agents asking them to stop covering the opposition.

"They are being accused of promoting the opposition and there is a particular person who calls these journalists, he calls himself Stephen Bakaleke," Robert Sempala, National Coordinator of the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, told DW.

"This is a very unfortunate development, which certainly is intended to create fear within the media and to make it shy away from giving the opposition and dissenting views a fair and objective coverage."

"We are aware of more journalists and media houses whose names and brands have been marked in red by the commission," Bashir Mbaziira of Uganda's Journalists Association said.

Wine released on bail

Member of parliament Wine who's widely known thanks to his Afro Beats career, was released on bail on Thursday after spending three nights in prison. The 37-year old was released on condition that he does not participate in illegal demonstrations.

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Wine was not present in court on Thursday but appeared via video link. Heavy security forces were deployed in parts of Kampala.

"We are glad that he has finally been granted bail, of course. The requirement that he should not engage in unlawful demonstrations is strange, because who determines what is unlawful," his lawyer Asuman Basarlirwa said.

"If you leave it to this partisan police that is at the forefront of violating people's rights, you are going to create a situation where Bobi Wine will never be free in this country," he added.

Government spokesman Shaban Bantariza said Wine should be ready to face the consequences of his actions. "His declaration that he must organize and implement a revolution with intent to remove government before 2021, he had better leave that because he can only compete with others according to the law, but if he undertakes to continue that for him he must bring down government before 2021 using an insurrection, every choice has consequences."

'Trumped up charges'

One of Wine's sureties is lawmaker Nsamba Patrick, who is a member of Museveni's ruling party. He said Wine just spoke out against taxes "which I myself opposed in parliament."

Patrick said Wine had said these taxes are unfair to the people of Uganda. "They reviewed the taxes. One year down the road they are trumping up charges against him. It is our constitutional right that any Ugandan who is not satisfied with what government is doing, they hold peaceful demonstrations."

Wine's next court hearing is scheduled for May 23.

Alex Gitta contributed to this report.

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