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Media rights body urges govt to drop charges against NTV journalists

An independent global media rights body, Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) has asked the Ugandan government to immediately drop charges of incitement and malicious damage to property against two NTV journalists.

Herbert Zziwa and Ronald Muwanga were arrested and assaulted by security personnel believed to be presidential guards, Special Forces Command (SFC) on August 13 while covering violent clashes in Arua ahead of the parliamentary seat by-election.  

Zziwa and Muwanga were detained overnight and charged on August 14 with incitement to violence and malicious damage to property before they were released on police bond.

Herbert Zziwa (R) and Ronald Muwanga at Gulu police station shortly after being released

Also that same night, security personnel assaulted and harassed Julius Bakabaage, John Kibalizi, and Benson Ongom, journalists of NBS TV who were also reporting live the shooting of Kyadondo East legislator Robert Kyagulanyi's driver, Yasin Kawuma.

"Journalists reporting in crisis zones should do so without fear that the security personnel that are supposed to look out for their safety will turn on them and assault them. The charges brought against Herbert Zziwa and Ronald Muwanga are also groundless, suggesting that authorities are trying to legitimize the arrest and assault of these journalists," said CPJ's sub-Saharan African representative, Muthoki Mumo.

"Ugandan authorities should immediately drop the charges and ensure those responsible for violence against journalists are held accountable."

On Monday, August 13 chaos and violence erupted in Arua at the conclusion of campaigns for the Arua municipality by-election when President Yoweri Museveni's convoy was allegedly stoned by opposition supporters.

After safely seeing off the president who boarded a chopper back to Kampala, SFC soldiers stormed Hotel Pacific to arrest opposition MPs and supporters who they believed were responsible for the attack on the president's motorcade. It was during the scuffle that Kawuma was shot dead while inside Kyagulanyi's car. 

Zziwa told CPJ that he, Muwanga, and cameraman Jeff Tumwesigye were reporting live from the Pacific Hotel, where the driver had been shot, when security personnel confronted them.

The security officers, whom Zziwa could not identify as belonging to any specific security agency, went after Muwanga, who was holding a camera light, and started beating him with sticks and their fists, Zziwa and Ongom, who also witnessed the incident, told CPJ.

Tumwesigye, the cameraman, ran to safety. Zziwa, who had initially tried to help Muwanga, also decided to flee to safety but ran into another group of about five security officers who beat him with sticks, slapped him, and kicked him.

He told CPJ that he escaped them, running towards a nearby security van with intention of surrendering himself for arrest to avoid further assault. Zziwa said that he found his colleague, Muwanga, already detained in the vehicle.

Zziwa told CPJ that military personnel operating the security van used a rope to tie him together with Muwanga and two other individuals. These soldiers confiscated their phones before driving them to two unknown locations, according to Zziwa and a statement from NTV Uganda.

At around 1:00am on August 14, they were taken to Arua central police station where they were handcuffed, and then they were driven around 250 kilometers to Gulu central police station, where they spent the night and were charged in the morning.

Zziwa told CPJ that he and Muwanga suffered minor injuries to their backs and heads. As conditioned by their bond, yesterday, the duo appeared at Gulu police station, where police extended their bond to August 27 when they are expected to report again. Zziwa told CPJ they were directed to pick up their phones at Arua police station.

Similarly, the NBS TV crew that was reporting live from Hotel Pacific was also assaulted including their cameraman Julius Bakabaage who was beaten on his back and head with the butts of guns. Ongom and the third member of the NBS crew, reporter Kibalizi, escaped by running away from the officers, they recounted.

Ongom told CPJ that later that night, between 8:45pm and 9:00pm, he and Kibalizi received phone calls from someone claiming to be Zziwa, the arrested NTV Uganda journalist. The caller was using Zziwa's phone number and asked the journalists to bring their equipment and footage to a room at the Blue Dove Hotel in Arua.

However, Ongom told CPJ that they were suspicious, since they had witnessed Zziwa's arrest earlier in the evening, and did not go to the hotel room. Daily Monitor, a publication that shares a parent company with NTV, reported that Zziwa's colleagues had that night received calls made from his phone by "unknown people." Zziwa told CPJ he did not know about these calls.

The NBS crew went back to report from Hotel Pacific on the morning of August 14 but a group of presidential guards were blocking the road, according to Ongom and Bakabaage.

Unable to access the hotel, they started setting up their equipment at a distance from the soldiers, with the intention of reporting live. However, three of the soldiers ran towards them, threatening them with guns and telling them to stop filming, they told CPJ.

Although the three journalists managed to get away from the soldiers, their equipment, including a camera and a tripod, was confiscated. They recovered the equipment from Arua central police station that evening, according to Bakabaage and Ongom.

Military spokesperson Richard Karemire said it was "regrettable" that the journalists had been "caught up in this fracas." He declined to discuss specific allegations of assault but said that the military would investigate any formal complaints filed with them.

Police spokesperson Emilian Kayima told CPJ that journalists were not specifically targeted in Arua.

He said that "all issues would be looked at and sorted" though he said he could not commit on whether the case against the two NTV Uganda journalists would be dropped. He did not respond to CPJ's question about whether police had used Zziwa's confiscated phone to call other journalists.

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