Ugandans will head to the polls next month to cast their ballots in an election that will see President Yoweri Museveni compete for a fifth term in office against four other candidates. But as the vote nears, rights groups say officials have been cracking down on free speech in an effort to limit criticism against the government.
From police to internal security forces, a host of state officials are allegedly targeting journalists and other critics, using intimidation to curb criticism of government policies ahead of the election — particularly in rural areas of the East African country, according to a Human Rights Watch Report (HRW) released on Monday.
"A lot of this is the byproduct of the way in which governance operates in Uganda," said Maria Burnett, HRW's senior Uganda researcher. "We tend to see this escalate around elections where people feel like there's risk of potentially greater scrutiny."
According to interviews with more than 100 journalists, HRW reported that the government has ramped up its efforts in the last year in preparation for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. These efforts have imperiled the freedom and fairness of the vote, HRW concluded.
While print reporters have slightly more leeway in the capital Kampala, radio and rural journalists have borne the brunt of the repression. A majority of Ugandans get their news from radio outlets, which tend to have a more extensive reach outside Kampala. Heads of news organizations can be sanctioned for opposition-friendly articles, and several outlets in the capital have been forced to close.
As HRW explained in its report, the country's broadcast regulation agency sends out warnings to the outlets and stations for perceived negative reporting. The fear of being targeted has reportedly led some organizations to hike up commercial prices for the opposition as a way to deter them from buying advertisements, while some journalists say the government has tried to bribe them to put out positive material.
According to one local radio journalist, reporters are forced to carefully communicate their reporting to avoid government scrutiny, particularly during election season. "I think government intends to keep the people uninformed," the reporter told HRW. "You see, uninformed people are easy to manipulate. Cases of intimidation are prevalent. As journalists we are forced to cover up. In the reporting you don't hit the nail on top."
Burnett echoed this statement, saying media outlets in the country tend to self-censor as a result of the repressive government tactics. "It has a chilling effect, that affects information for voters," she said.
While the targeting of journalists and activists has increased in the last year, according to Burnett, the tactics are similar to ones used by the Ugandan government in previous elections. Museveni, the 71-year-old president, has led Uganda for nearly 30 years.
Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister who is currently running for president, recently echoed the statements in the HRW report, claiming Museveni has carried out torture and killings in order to hinder opposition's efforts. Museveni was first elected in 1986 following five years of war and after ousting then-president Milton Obote. The leader has also been accused of manipulating state coffers to boost his success at the polls.
Beyond the recent accusations, the Ugandan government under Museveni has repeatedly faced allegations that security officers have illegally arrested opposition supporters and subjected them to beatings and other forms of torture.
Mbabazi referenced nine instances where supporters of his had either been "assaulted, arrested, 'disappeared' and even killed," according to Reuters.
"As the pressure of the campaigns is mounting, so are the continual attempts to intimidate and subdue my support base," he said.
Despite facing criticism over the country's poor public services and high unemployment rate, Museveni is expected to win the February election.
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