"The police [are] working within the parameters of the law," Uganda's information minister, Mary Karooro Okurut, told journalists on Monday in Kampala, hours after police had forced two newspapers and two radio stations to shut down while they conducted a search -- and kept them shut. After years of documenting human rights abuses in Uganda, including threats to free expression, I was not impressed by her words. Her claim that the day's events were grounded in law only further illustrated the government's emerging practice of citing laws to justify repression.
Kampala's media siege -- and yes, it has become a Twitter hashtag -- ignited because of a May 7 article in Uganda's largest independent English newspaper, the Daily Monitor. The article detailed an alleged conspiracy to frame or eliminate high-ranking officials who don't support a plan for President Yoweri Museveni's son Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba to take over when and if his father steps down -- a plot known as "the Muhoozi project." It was not the first time rumors of the plot had circulated -- it had surfaced on Wikileaks years ago.
But the heavy-handed police response to the recent allegations gives weight to the truth of the plot. Since the article was published, the police interrogated journalists, sought a court order to force the newspaper to reveal its source, shut down newspapers and radio stations, defied a court order to allow the newspapers to reopen, dodged the service of the court order, and arrested peaceful protesters outside the Monitor's offices.
No matter what happens with the Muhoozi project, the attention on this episode should not obscure a much more sinister reality. President Museveni seems to be sending a signal that he won't tolerate free and independent media when he begins his campaigns for the 2016 elections -- in what will be his thirtieth year in office.
This won't be the first time that pressure on the media has been part of his political strategy. Selective application of the law and closure of radio stations curtailed independent debate in the run-up to the previous elections, in 2011, particularly in rural areas critical to an election win. Human Rights Watch documented the partisan application of media and regulatory laws, creating a minefield for media owners and reporters who spoke or wrote about issues that the government deemed politically sensitive or controversial.
Ugandan law still restricts the number of people who can legally be journalists and permits revocation of broadcasting licenses without due process. Government-controlled regulatory bodies wield broad, ill-defined, and unchecked powers to regulate the media. In 2009, four Luganda-speaking radio stations were pulled off the air with no judicial process, one for over a year. And so the message was clear -- radio talk shows struggled to be allowed to host contentious political debates in rural areas and the opposition struggled to get air time because media owners were worried about their businesses for the long term.
During the 2011 election campaigns, a Fort Portal radio journalist told me: "Journalists are not free to do their jobs. In most cases, they really have the information. They have done investigations, have the documents, but then they sit on it. If it relates to [local government people] or a minister, even when they have the proof to pin down the person, the radio stations will sit on it, because they fear the consequences."
The ability to criticize government policies and action, to debate the quality of governance and service delivery, to complain when a "development" initiative violates rights, to scrutinize the president and his inner circle all hang in the balance in Uganda. And these issues will not be decided by a single court order or even the reopening of the Daily Monitor. Ultimately, we must worry that the real objective has already been achieved: to economically cripple the paper, and to scare its owners and journalists into self-censorship.
Naturally, arbitrary closures and selective application of the law prompts timidity and ultimately key issues go unreported. Media owners in Uganda shouldn't face the choice between financial stability and free expression but that is the reality. Donor governments pulled direct budget support for Uganda because of numerous unaddressed corruption scandals this year, but they continue to devise projects to reform and professionalize the police, to improve government service delivery. But those donors and Ugandans will not know if those projects are having the desired impact if there is no robust independent reporting in the country, if journalists do, as a radio journalist in Hoima told me, "public relations reporting" instead of "real issues."
In his book The Dictator's Learning Curve, William Dobson identifies a perilous trend among authoritarian regimes -- appropriating the forms of democratic governance, but over time emptying them of any substance. Dobson doesn't delve into Uganda, but the trend fits. No one should be reassured that the police are working "within the parameters of the law" when they surround a newspaper with riot police and disable printing presses and transmission links. That is not what the law is for.
Maria Burnett is a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow @MariaHRWAfrica