Uganda, violence and imprisonment for journalists, activists and NGOs: Here’s how life is in the “most democratic country in the world”

court-hammerBy Lorenzo Galeazzi

President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni the Ugandan President that has been in power for 30 years, had no doubts when he said, “There is no place in the world more democratic than Uganda.”

A shaggy dog story to which the international community seems to believe especially when Uganda is compared to its East African neighbors such as South Sudan, Kenya and Republic Democratic of Congo. But Uganda is not an example of peace and stability and in spite of its progressive Constitution, it is experiencing a decline in respect of human rights and the freedom of expression.

A series of legislative measures aimed at knocking the media, NGOs and homosexuals are transforming democracy into an authoritarian state.

In 2013, Uganda had attracted the attention of world’s public opinion when the president signed the Anti Gay Bill into law, and then later withdrawing it through the courts of law following a series of pressure from the international community. The anti-homosexuality Act was a law which provided for the death penalty for the “crime of aggravated homosexuality “.

“At least since 2014 the situation has become very critical,” explains Grazia Paoleri of Soleterre, a non-governmental organization that in the African state promotes health and pediatric interventions, and since some years ago carries on a defenders protection program (defenders are people or organizations involved in defending and promoting human rights).

“Yes, I fear for the safety of our local partners,” she continues.

As the lawyer Livingstone Sewanyana, the Foundation for Human rights initiative which defends the victims of political persecutions: “We follow a thousand cases every year”.  Nuruh Nakiwala the EHAHRDP project manager also explains, “Persecution and threats are common. The government terrorizes us to impose silence”.

These two organizations are among the local partners of Soleterre and are increasingly targeted by authorities. “The human rights defenders like me are seriously in danger”, continues Dr. Sewanyana , “ It happens that our offices are raided. And there’s never an explanation of these incidents”. Impunity supported by liberticidal laws such as the Ngo bill that puts a muzzle on international organizations and the regulations set by government to the media.

“The Public Order Management Act criminalizes coverage of sources”, explains Robert Sempala, the Human rights network for journalists, “whereas if a reporter is concerned with the rights of gay, can end up in prison for condoning homosexuality.”

The situation becomes even worse if you move away from the capital Kampala and go to rural areas, where the level of violence is even greater, and the experienced by the ordinary people.

Gulu –a town located in Northern Uganda, is among other towns in the region that has been devastated for a long time only until a few years ago by a bloody civil war. During those perilous times of unrest it was not difficult to die in prison after a simple police check. Fortunately even in that area, there were defenders who in the midst of tremendous difficulties still managed to follow cases of violence, killings and disappearances.

In the general situation, the Internet plays a vital role as an instrument of denunciation and as a platform for protests and mobilizations. In response to the liberties on the internet the government can take action to block the access to social media on any Ugandan internet network, as was the case during the last presidential elections in February 2016. Museveni was re-elected in a climate full of intimidation and fraud. One of the most important projects within Uganda is the one that concerns data security. Neil Blazevic of the Pan-African human rights defender network explains, “The defenders who investigate abuses collect data and information. Consequently, the material collected puts them in danger, so you need to make it unreadable in case of computer intrusions”.

The most often kind of property intrusions are the raids in the offices or homes. “Our office has been broken three times in the last two years”, says Sempala from the Human Rights network for journalists, “they took the PC, safe and cards. When we went to make a complaint we found that the safe that was stolen was already at the police station. “One of the last cases that the foundation is following is the story of TV reporter Andrew Lwanga, who was brutally beaten by police during his work. His back bone was severely injured in the process. Now he walks with difficulty and still continues to receive threats”, says Mr Sempala.

Andrew Lwanga : “My biggest fear?  Is to be shot”