afrol News, 18 October - The police guard that occupied the premises of the Uganda's leading independent daily, 'The Monitor', have withdrawn after a six day search for information. The newspaper reappeared among Kampala vendors today, while two editors remain accused of spreading "false news".
An estimated 50 soldiers and police searched the newspaper's offices without a warrant on 10 October after publication of an article saying the rebels of the brutal Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in the north of the country had shot down an army helicopter. The authorities still deny that the crash had happened.
The police guard around the offices of 'The Monitor' was removed on 16 October and most of the material seized six days earlier returned. The paper reappeared today, not having been able to publish during one week.
Police had been looking for any material concerning the report, searching electronic and written material. They ordered staff to leave and disconnected the telephones.
Managing editor Charles Onyango Obbo and deputy news editor Wanyama Wangah pleaded not guilty when they appeared in court on 16 October charged with reporting "false news" and publishing "information prejudicial to the security of the state." They were freed on bail of one and a half million shillings (US$ 800) each.
Frank Nyakairu, who wrote the offending article, was brought back to Kampala later on 16 October from the northern town of Gulu, where he had been "kidnapped by army troops," according to the paper's staff. He appeared in court the next day and risks up to seven years in prison. He was freed on bail of two and a half million shillings (US$ 1,340).
When the removal of the police guard was announced, Ugandan Information Minister Basoga Nsadhu warned journalists to obey the country's laws and customs. There are concerns that the government will make 'The Monitor' its first test case under the new draconian anti-terrorism law, which came into force in May.
The anti-terrorism law provides for a possible death sentence for anyone publishing news "likely to promote terrorism." Terrorism is broadly defined as the "use of violence or threat of violence with intent to promote or achieve political, religious, economic, and cultural or social ends in an unlawful manner."
According to the French media watchdog Reporters sans Frontières (RSF), "press freedom has deteriorated in Uganda since the beginning of this year." A journalism student was killed by police during an opposition demonstration in January and the strict new anti-terrorist law is "likely to lead to abuses". RSF Secretary-general Robert Ménard in a letter to President Yoweri Museveni said "the attitude of the security forces is a serious threat to press freedom."
The human rights group Amnesty International on Wednesday joined the protests. The group condemned "the raid of 'The Monitor's' premises" and was concerned that "this raid represents the government's continued infringement to press freedom in the country since early this year." The group further urged the authorities "to stop the harassment of independent journalists."
- 'The Monitor' has clashed with the government over a series of articles in the past and has been taken to court, Amnesty said in a statement. "This seems to be just another series of intimidation and harassment by a government which reneges on its promise of a free and independent media for Ugandans," the group concluded.
Also the US-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned against increasing "suppression" of the Ugandan press. "Just when independent reporting is most necessary - in war time - the Ugandan government has silenced one of the country's most respected journals," said HRW researcher Juliane Kippenberg last week. "This is a blatant attack on freedom of the press," she added.