Treatment of Red Pepper threat to media freedom

It’s almost a week since the Red Pepper publication offices were raided by the police and eight proprietors and editors arrested.

They are being held in connection with a news story the tabloid published last Monday about relations between Uganda and Rwanda.

Their continued detention at Nalukenya of all places, beyond the constitutionally permitted 48 hours, and the decision to charge them with treason of all charges, are mindboggling steps to say the least.

Nalufenya is a detention facility that gained notoriety after several suspects in the murder of former police spokesman Andrew Felix Kaweesi were tortured while detained there. Located almost 80 kilometres from Kampala, it is normally reserved for high-profile crime suspects such as rebel ADF commander Jamil Mukulu.

On the other hand, treason is a capital offence punishable by death, and it’s inconceivable how Red Pepper could conspire to overthrow the government through publication of the cited news story.

Notwithstanding the love-hate relationship between the state and media in Uganda that has included office closures and arrests of journalists, the handling of this particular case is unprecedented.

Not only is the number of the suspects held unusually high, it’s shocking that the police went as far as searching their homes and cars.  

It looks as if the intention is to intimidate not just Red Pepper but the media in general, as well as punish the accused without due regard to the principle of presumption of innocence.

Whatever the police and some members of the public feel about Red Pepper and its approach to journalism, it’s very dangerous to criminalise a news story to this extent because today it’s Red Pepper tomorrow it’s another publication or individual.

Journalists have a duty to tell the truth, and the majority try to do so. However, when they make mistakes, a sledge hammer isn’t the best way to deal with them because that undermines the noble principle of freedom of speech and the press enshrined in our Constitution.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer, is credited with a phrase that captures the importance of the principle of freedom of speech even when one disagrees.

In The Friends of Voltaire written around 1906, she stated: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

We couldn’t agree more.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd