The raid and siege of the Daily Monitor and Red Pepper offices by the Uganda Police today, May 20, is an abuse of power and the law, and a blatant violation of the Constitution.
In a press release defending their action, the police have said they were responding to the failure of Daily Monitor journalists to "avail and provide the original copy of a letter and other related documents, purportedly authored by Gen. David Sejusa (a.k.a.Tinyefuza), and the source of the said missive".
The police, accusing the paper of "adamantly" refusing to comply with the court order that required them to produce a copy of the letter and identify their source, say they sought and received a search warrant by the Nakawa Magistrates Court.
Arguing that the Daily Monitor and Red Pepper premises have been cordoned off in accordance with the laws of Uganda, the press release said, "Police shall continue to occupy and search the two premises until the said documents are retrieved to assist with ongoing investigations."
But this is only half the story. When the court issued the order compelling the Daily Monitor journalists to produce Gen. Sejusa's letter and identify their source, the company's lawyers appealed. As the paper's Managing Director, Mr Alex Asiimwe, said in a statement: "This matter is in court and management has contested the demand by the police for us to disclose the source of the story, and the matter is yet to be decided."
In any case, under the pretext of conducting the search, police have ordered the shutdown of KFM and Dembe FM, the two radio stations owned and run by Monitor Publications, publishers of the Daily Monitor. And it is unlikely that the Daily Monitor and Red Pepper newspapers will come out tomorrow.
All four are important sources of information for many Ugandans, whose right to receive information has been violated by the police action.
The police action, itself a blatant disregard of court process and therefore rule of law, appears to be meant to send a signal to the Ugandan media and the public that critical reporting and commentary on sensitive affairs of government will not be tolerated.
We must all stand up against this intimidation and wanton violation of the rights to free expression.
It is gratifying that several civil society actors led by the Foundation of Human Rights Initiative today congregated outside the Daily Monitor premises in solidarity with the media house. For a long time, the wider Ugandan civil society has been intriguingly silent on the question of press freedom. It is a struggle that they had left to media houses and a few media NGOs.
We all have to remember that press freedom and freedom of expression are not just about the rights of journalists and the media to receive and disseminate information. They are more about the right of the public to receive and impart information without which, as our Supreme Court reminded us many years ago, they can't meaningfully participate in their own governance.
An attack on the Daily Monitor and Red Pepper, no matter the degree of their imperfections, is an attack on the citizens of Uganda. We at the African Centre for Media Excellence are outraged and condemn this despicable police action.
International Institute for ICT Journalism