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Uganda elections bring hard times for freelance journalists

With general elections looming, journalist safety is becoming a major concern. Last month, as part of a research trip to East Africa, the Rory Peck Trust travelled to Uganda to gain a better understanding of the situations of local freelance journalists, and how we could best support them.

Five days in Kampala last April gave me the chance to meet with RPTs existing and potential partners — journalist associations and media houses, trainers, refugee and human rights organisations — to discuss concerns and find ways to work together. It was also an opportunity to meet with some of the freelance journalists we have supported in recent months.
Working as a journalist in Uganda is a difficult and dangerous profession.  A recent report by our partner, the Human Rights Network of Journalists in Uganda (HRNJ-U), revealed that the vast majority of journalists faced risks and threats to their lives, including physical assault, intimidation and legal charges, which rings true for the discussions I had in Kampala. One partner organisation said that "police and security officers, and even politicians themselves, are the main abusers of human rights," and that recent tactics aimed at silencing journalists included threats to media owners, pushing them to sack investigative journalists and quash critical reporting.

All of this has lead to self-censorship and – arguably – an erosion of ethical journalism.  Andrew Lwanga, Alex Bukhumune, Edward Bindhe, Twanika Kajubi and Zadock Amanyisa are just a few among many Ugandan journalists who were assaulted, incarcerated or beaten up by police officers, politicians or security agents because of their profession in 2015.
The 2015/2016 General Elections are not likely to improve the situation: "Election time is equivalent to hard times for journalists", says a chief editor of one of the most read newspapers in the country. "Lots of money is being spent by politicians on journalists as a way to control media coverage during the elections", adds Peter Mwesige, Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME). Threats and intimidation towards journalists and media owners are likely to increase in the coming months: "For many people, journalists are perceived to be in the camp of the enemy", the HRNJ-U told me. And in situations like these, freelancers are always the most vulnerable.  
In response, many of the local organisations I spoke to are putting measures in place: the Uganda Journalists Union aims to publish a code of ethics for the General Elections, while ACME intends to look at the issue of how journalists can get access to candidates without jeopardising ethics. Other initiatives and programmes are being carried out by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defender Project, the Uganda Media Women Association, and the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders, and many others.
RPT will be working closely with all of these organisations. Currently we receive alerts every time an incident happens involving a freelance journalist in Uganda, and if they think that a freelancer is in need of further support, they know that we may be in a position to help.

Since January 2014, the Trust has supported 35 freelance journalists in East Africa with assistance grants. In 2013, the Trust partnered with the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to set up an emergency hotline for local journalists covering the country's presidential elections. We are considering a similar initiative for the 2015/2016 General Elections in Uganda.
Vincent Guermond is the Trust’s Researcher for Sub-Saharan Africa. You can find him on Twitter here.

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