NAIROBI, Kenya – Uganda's government is denouncing and attacking journalists covering weeks of political unrest and riots over rising prices, a media watchdog said Friday.
President Yoweri Museveni this week said journalists reporting on the opposition's "walk to work" protests are "enemies" for covering treacherous protests led by hired thugs and drug dealers.
Since the protests began last month, at least 10 journalists have been attacked, said Gilles Lordet, the editor-in-chief at Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. Two were hurt seriously enough to require hospitalization, including Eddie Ssejjoba of the New Vision newspaper, who said he was dragged out of a vehicle he was traveling in with his colleagues.
"Soldiers got the command to start beating up people who were taking pictures," Ssejjoba said. "They started beating us with canes, kicking us and demanding our cameras. Even when they got our cameras they did not stop beating us."
Two journalists were also attacked during the February election, and seven were beaten by a gang of thugs after it, said Lordet.
A government spokesman said security forces were acting under pressure and that it is not government policy to attack journalists. But on Wednesday, President Museveni published an article in the government-owned Daily Monitor saying the protests were organized by drug users and looters. He blamed journalists for inciting the violence, the worst in sub-Saharan Africa this year.
"The media houses both local and international such as Al-Jazeera, BBC, NTV, The Daily Monitor, etc., that cheer on these irresponsible people are enemies of Uganda's recovery and they will have to be treated as such," Museveni wrote. "Weaknesses in the existing laws, too much laxity by elements of the judiciary and the police allow all this indiscipline and criminality to persist."
Nine people have been shot to death by security forces during the protests, according to Human Rights Watch. The protests, which began last month over rising food and fuel prices, have been led by opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who has been arrested five times and temporarily blinded when he was sprayed with pepper spray or tear gas at point blank range.
Besigye sought medical treatment in Kenya, and journalists who covered his return to Uganda were attacked, including an Associated Press cameraman and a Canadian journalist.
Photographer Marc Hofer said he and his colleagues had been threatened several times by security forces while covering the protests. At one point a policeman pointed a tear gas grenade launcher inches away from his face, he said.
Another time, police told him "go or this gun might shoot you," said Hofer.
Fred Opolot, a government spokesman, said the security forces were acting under pressure in front of violent crowds. He said it was not government policy to attack journalists, and he said that soldiers or police who had used excessive force against journalists would be disciplined.
Museveni, who came to power in 1986, won re-election in February, though the opposition said his re-election was marred by fraud. On his inauguration day earlier this month, protesters stoned the cars of visiting dignitaries, including the Congolese and Nigerian presidents, according to the government.
Museveni has said repeatedly he will not resign over the protests. He is proposing a constitutional amendment so that protesters are jailed for at least six months after arrest, rather than being released on bail the same day.
The Ugandan government's criticism of the press follows denunciations of the media in Kenya, where people are also complaining about high prices and corruption, and South Africa, where the ruling party has proposed new curbs on journalists.