KAMPALA, UGANDA — Former journalist Irene Abalo Otto watches interviews she led during her time working as a TV journalist. Now she spends most of her day lying on her bed resting her foot following an injury she sustained during a February afternoon that changed the course of her life.
The mother of three had been at the peak of her journalism career working for Nation Media Group, the largest independent media organization in East and Central Africa, when she was sent out to cover a press conference. The hot afternoon in February 2021 ended in an attack that badly injured her leg, an injury that still gives her pain and requires her to wear a support for her foot and ankle. She still struggles to walk and drive a car. The physical and mental trauma of the events that day meant Abalo was forced to give up her job and studies.
The single mother alleges she sustained her injuries at the hands of a military police officer, a member of the 46,000-strong Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces, the armed forces of Uganda, employed by the state. Abalo’s attack wasn’t an isolated incident. Many cases of violence against journalists go unreported due to a loss of faith in the justice system, says Rose Mary Kemigisha, senior human rights officer at the Uganda Human Rights Commission, a government body with constitutional powers set up to protect the human rights of all citizens, bridging a gap between the government and people of Uganda. Now a group of reporters has joined forces to create a united front against violence inflicted on journalists as they do their jobs. Together they have succeeded in their quest for justice.
While many attacks go unreported, figures from the Human Rights Network for Journalists — Uganda, a nonprofit founded in 2005 and focused on journalists’ rights, show that 131 cases involving human rights violations and abuses against journalists and media practitioners were reported in 2021. During the pandemic, these figures were higher, with 174 cases in 2020. An additional 165 cases were reported in 2019. Complaints included assault, unlawful arrest and detention, switching off radio stations, confiscation and damage of equipment, blocked access and cyberattacks. The report noted that most of the assaults occurred during elections and campaigns.
“Violence manifests in so many forms and from different people,” says Robert Ssempala, the network’s executive director. He says some of the people who attack journalists while they’re working are police officers, army members and even politicians and their supporters.
Ruth Ssekindi, director of complaints, investigations and legal services at the Uganda Human Rights Commission, says the organization investigates any complaints it receives. Members organize tribunals for some cases and advise the government on media freedom.
For Abalo, the image of her perpetrator is still vivid. She says she clearly recalls her attacker, uniformed in army green and protected with a red helmet and black-gloved hands holding an AK-47 assault rifle. This is the uniform of a military officer, deployed to the press conference in case of unruly behavior; their presence is a common occurrence at events involving the opposition party. Military officers, joined by police, watched as a crowd gathered outside the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for a press conference led by Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, the National Unity Platform (NUP) leader and a former presidential candidate. But as people waited to hear an update on the alleged kidnapping of NUP supporters in 2021, the scene quickly turned to chaos.
Graphics By Matt Haney, GPJ
As she recorded the press conference, Abalo says, she heard the cries of people being beaten and, fearing for her own safety, ran toward the moving car that had transported her to the event. Although she made it to the car, a military officer following right behind her grabbed her leg and attacked it with a “metallic bar with nails,” tearing her pants in the process, she says.
Brig. Gen. Felix Kulayigye, spokesperson for the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces, says the media doesn’t always show both sides of the story. “Beating is not justifiable, and sometimes it’s provoked,” he says. “Sometimes journalists are among rioters, and who do you think will be spared? There is need for mutual respect by both sides.”
John Cliff Wamala, a news reporter and familiar face on NTV Uganda, says he was also beaten while covering the same press conference Abalo attended; the two journalists shared a car to the hospital after they were injured.
“We face all forms of intimidation from security forces when they don’t want journalists to cover certain topics,” says Wamala, adding that for months after the attack he couldn’t stand in direct sunlight due to severe headaches.
Wamala still works as a journalist; his passion for covering human interest issues drives him. “I feel more encouraged to pursue my career because it’s a profession I hold close to my heart,” he says.
Ssempala says many journalists are intimidated by their attackers, don’t see any hope of justice and don’t bother reporting the attacks. Some even leave the profession and instead “choose safer jobs which don’t put them in harm’s way,” Ssempala adds, explaining this has created a huge gap in the profession “because many don’t want to be clobbered by overzealous security forces.”
James Kusemererwa, the Uganda Police Force’s director of human rights and legal services, encourages journalists to be vigilant and pursue justice.
Beatrice Lamwaka, GPJ Uganda
“When you sit back on your rights, equity doesn’t come to you,” he says. “Police won’t work on their cases unless there is a complainant. Everyone needs to support aggrieved journalists to pursue justice.”
He says journalists who don’t feel comfortable taking their complaints to the police should go to the Human Rights Commission or the African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims. Laws are in place to ensure those who are attacked get justice, he adds.
Abalo didn’t file a complaint against her attacker, focusing instead on her healing. No compensation will replace what she has lost, and successful prosecutions of these incidents are rare, she says. Nandudu Diana Flavia Okia, program officer for legal aid and support at the Human Rights Network for Journalists — Uganda, says in the seven years she has worked for the organization, only two journalists have won their cases against those who have attacked them while working in Kampala.
In Entebbe, Wakiso district, an area that partly encircles the capital, a group of journalists refuses to stay silent. Recognizing their power in numbers, they set up the Entebbe Journalists Association after three journalists from the area were beaten and had their equipment destroyed during the campaigns leading up to the 2016 general elections, according to the association.
After the attack the group not only joined together but also reached out to all 20 journalists in the area to fight against the offenders. Not all accepted the invitation, but as a 15-strong association, they took their cases to court collectively. They won against five supporters of the country’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, which has been in power since 1986. Since then, “we have been spared any form of violence because the perpetrators know the journalists are united,” says Diana Kibuuka, the association’s general secretary, who wasn’t one of the journalists beaten in the attack.
Abalo now works in the confines of her home in Bukoto, a suburb of Kampala, spending most of her time lying on her bed to ease the pain in her leg. The pain medication she was prescribed has caused ulcers, but ongoing treatment is proving difficult since her medical insurance ran out. She has been able to resume her studies and career, working as a project coordinator for the World Association of News Publishers, a nonprofit that promotes freedom of the press, hosting online trainings from home. But she misses being out in the field.
“I really don’t want to write stories from press releases without understanding what I am writing,” Abalo says. “I want to observe, smell what is happening in the environment, hear what people are saying. Because I am not able to do that, I can’t practice journalism now.”