IFJ Condemns Uganda’s President Over “Misguided Threats” To Close Newspapers

The International Federation of Journalists has responded angrily to remarks by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to close down newspapers reporting on security issues. The IFJ also condemned the arrest and sedition charges against journalist Andrew Mwenda whose reports have angered the government.

Yesterday, KFM radio reporter Andrew Mwenda was granted bail when he appeared at a magistrate’s court in Kampala, and now faces up to five years in jail over remarks about the crash that killed Garang in Uganda's presidential helicopter.

The IFJ says attempts to criminalize journalists reveal contempt for press freedom at a time when many in journalism hoped moves towards multi-party democracy would open up a new era of free expression.

“Such misguided threats and the victimization of a senior and respected journalist only damage efforts to create a professional and democratic culture in which a free press can flourish,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary.

The President spoke out on Tuesday last week at Kampala's Kololo Airstrip when speaking about the death of seven Ugandans who died in a helicopter crash with Sudanese first Vice-President John Garang.

Museveni said he would close any newspaper that reported on matters which, he claimed, “played with regional security” and singled out Nation Media Group's Daily Monitor, the Weekly Observer and the Red Pepper. However, the papers have defended their right to report on issues covering Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda People's Defence Forces.

Mwenda, Political Editor of the Monitor, was singled out for criticism and on Friday last week he was picked up by police. The President said he had warned Monitor Publications, the publishers of these titles, that such reporting would have to stop "if they still want to do business in Uganda.”

Chief magistrate Deo Nizeyimana set bail at 500,000 shillings in cash and ordered additional payments of 2 million shillings each from five people prepared to guarantee Mwenda's appearance in court. Mwenda remained in custody while colleagues left the court to obtain a total of 10.5 million shillings. Nizeyimana set the next hearing for August 29.

But the IFJ has joined local journalists in demanding the reporter’s immediate release and condemning the President's statement. “The President sends the wrong message when he attacks journalists who are doing a professional job,” said White.

Michael Wakabi, president of the IFJ affiliated, Uganda Journalists' Union said Musevni’s remarks were not driven by the desire for responsible journalism because he attacked publications that wrote on him negatively or covered divergent views.

“We back the journalists who are speaking out over this,” said White. “The President of Uganda should recognise above all that journalists are obliged to report professionally, ethically and truthfully on issues that matter. When the government tries to stifle opposing points of view it damages the reputation of Uganda and hurts press freedom.”

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The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 110 countries