2021 Elections: Donors Criticise Gov’t on Civil, Press Freedoms

Riot police drag a journalist during the November 18, 2020 arrest of presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi

Donor countries under the European Union (EU) have issued statements condemning restrictions on media and civil society organizations (CSOs) ahead of the 2021 general election.

The Embassies of Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and Netherlands issued statements through their social media platforms condemning government’s move to further restrict the the media and CSOs which they say are key in developing democracy and protecting human rights especially during the ongoing election campaign period.

“We are concerned about the recent reports of increased restrictions on the work of the media and civil society. We wish to emphasize that both the media and CSOs play a vital role in developing democracy and protecting human rights particularly during the election campaign period,” the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Uganda tweeted.

This same tweet is reflected on the official tweeter handles of the Embassy of Sweden in Uganda, Embassy of Denmark in Uganda and the Embassy of Ireland in Uganda.

Last week, the Uganda Media Council, the body in charge of regulating the media gave all practising journalists a seven-day ultimatum to register or risk being denied access to cover the 2021 general election and other public functions.

Paulo Ekochu, the Chairperson of the Media Council of Uganda warned all media houses both local and international including freelance journalists who fail to register that criminal charges will be opened up against them. He added that all cards that are currently issued to journalists have also been recalled so that they are issued with new ones with security features that make it hard to forge.

Ekochu tagged the registration process on complaints received from journalists about harassment by security forces while they are carrying out their work. He said that as a council, they are incapable of doing anything because they don’t know who is a journalist and who is not because of a lack of accreditation.

He denied accusations that they are doing this to get rid of critical journalists both local and international, arguing that their actions are backed up by the Press and Journalists Act of 1995.

Last month three Canadian journalists working with CBC News who had come to cover elections were deported from Uganda under unclear circumstances. Those deported are; Margret Evans, Lily Martin and Jean-Francois Bisson.  But Ekochu said their measure is not in any way meant to close out some journalists as many other foreign journalists have been given access to the country.

The Uganda Editors’ Guild has since cautioned the Council over the ultimatum given to practicing journalists to register warning that the timing was problematic and could cause unnecessary suspicion.

“We note that the requirement to register journalists comes in the middle of the election campaign season when many journalists are already covering candidates in the field. The Editors’ Guild therefore requests the Media Council to hold more consultations with different stakeholders to ensure that the Constitutional rights of citizens to receive and disseminate information is not unduly harmed by these regulations,” reads the Uganda Editors’ Guild statement issued on 11th December.

For a long time, journalists have resisted provisions of the Press and Journalist’s Act that call for registration. They argue that the government only wants to use it to cripple rather than regulate the media. 

Meanwhile, government also deported heads of United States and European Union funded Non-Governmental Organisations while others who were out of the country were barred from returning. The EU Head of Delegation Pacifici last month confirmed the deportation of Simon Osborn, who was the Country Director of National Democratic Institute (NDI). Others deported were Isaac Othieno, the Head of a USA based NGO, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).

Besides these deportations, the Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA) Executive Director, Sydney Asubo also on December 11th, froze the accounts of Uganda Women’s Network-UWONET and Uganda National NGO Forum in Stanbic Bank, ABSA Bank, KCB Bank and Standard Chartered Bank on allegations of terror financing.

However, Tezira Jamwa, the UWONET Chairperson has since described the FIA allegations as false, adding that the freezing of their accounts has adversely affected their operations but more specifically activities aimed at benefitting groups especially women and girls of Uganda.  This includes activities that had been lined up for the 16 days of activism to end Gender Based Violence and the elections projects.

Election campaigns in Uganda kicked off on 9th November and are expected to close on 12th January 2021 after which Ugandans will go to polls to elect their President and Members of Parliament on January 14th, 2021.

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