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CPJ: CPJ Safety Advisory: Covering Uganda’s elections


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On January 14, 2021, incumbent Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni will seek a sixth term, amid challenges from opposition candidates Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, and Patrick Oboi Amuriat, according to multiple news reports. During the general election campaign, security personnel have arrested both candidates and violently dispersed political rallies and protests, according to those reports.

Demonstrations have been met with a heavy and at times violent police response in urban centers such as Kampala, Jinja, Masaka, Hoima, and Gulu, and at least 50 people were killed in November protests after Bobi Wine’s arrest, according to the Daily Monitor.

Numerous journalists have been harassed, injured, attacked, and detained while covering the protests, as reported by CPJ. On November 27, Ugandan officials deported three CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) News journalists, despite the crew holding accreditation from the Media Council of Uganda, a statutory regulatory body, the CBC reported.

Journalists covering the upcoming election, political rallies, and related demonstrations should be aware of and consider the following safety guidance:

Documentation

  • The process and likelihood of obtaining media accreditation is currently uncertain. On December 10, 2020, the statutory Media Council of Uganda announced that all journalists without credentials would be barred from covering electoral events, and directed all foreign journalists residing in the country to re-apply for accreditation within seven days through a new, more onerous process, according to a statement from the Media Council, the Foreign Correspondents Association of Uganda, and CPJ’s review of the new accreditation application form.
  • Authorities have threatened criminal sanctions against unregistered journalists, and police have stated that from December 21, 2020, they will start screening journalists for credentials at political events, according to a statement from the African Centre for Media Excellence, a local nongovernmental organization, and the Uganda Radio Network news agency. 
  • Be aware that the new accreditation process requires visiting journalists to disclose personal information, including their marital status and travel history, as well as providing a portfolio of work and evidence of security clearance.
  • Visiting foreign journalists should identify which category of visa they should apply for. While journalists have traditionally entered Uganda using a tourist visa and applied for media accreditation on arrival, the CBC team was deported in November despite having followed this process.
  • In addition, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) requires all those who work in online data communication and broadcasting services to apply for authorization from them. Note that the deadline for UCC applications was October 5, 2020.
  • Be aware that various journalists’ applications for accreditation have previously been delayed indefinitely without reason, and that local journalists have raised concerns about their application information being used to exploit their personal data for political reasons, according to FCAU.

Physical Safety

Dangers from the police, as documented by CPJ and multiple news outlets, include:

Dangers from protestors, as documented by CPJ and multiple news outlets, include:

Planning & Communication

  • Journalists should expect and plan for a heavy police presence and potential response from the ‘Violence Suppression Unit’ when working in or around TV and radio stations that host opposition politicians, as well as any opposition party buildings.
  • Understanding some Luganda or working with people who speak the language can help give advance warning of emerging and imminent threats on the ground.
  • Movement can be affected at very short notice due to protesters and security forces blockading roads. Ensure you plan all journeys in advance and have a contingency plan in place.
  • Vehicles have been stoned by protesters. Make sure any vehicle you are travelling in has the correct safety rated glass fitted, which is typically laminated for windscreens and tempered/toughened glass at the sides/rear.
  • Consider journalists’ reputation and/or sexual orientation. Foreign journalists were recently accused of being CIA spies by a former military official. In addition, the LGBTQ community in Uganda has historically faced persecution and hostility from both the authorities and certain sections of society, as highlighted by Human Rights Watch.
  • Be aware that assisting journalists in more remote parts of Uganda can be logistically challenging. Always have a check-in procedure with either your office, a fellow journalist, family, or friend in case you need assistance.
  • Do not share unnecessary information with local sources, interviewees, drivers, or others, such as where you are staying, where you are planning to go, or who you intend to interview. Avoid discussing such plans loudly in public places, such as cafes or lobbies of large hotels, and try not to conduct interviews in the main large hotels in Kampala due to the risk of surveillance.
  • Media workers should not be expected to work alone, particularly after dark when the risks increase. See CPJ’s advice for journalists reporting alone.

Clothing & Equipment

  • Avoid wearing politically sensitive colors. Red colored clothing is associated with Wine’s National Unity Platform (NUP); yellow colored clothing is the choice of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM), while blue is the favored color of the other main opposition party, Amuriat’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), which has also been targeted by security forces.
  • Taking into account the levels of violence and tactics used by both police and protesters, consider wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as a safety helmet, safety goggles, and a protective body vest. A full-face respirator is advisable, since large amounts of tear gas have been liberally deployed. If there is a threat of live ammunition being used, body armor should also be considered. Read CPJ’s PPE glossary to learn more about personal protective equipment.
  • It is advisable to avoid wearing black and khaki-colored PPE, a color typically worn by the Ugandan security forces.
  • If safe to do so, identify yourself with PRESS on the front and back of your PPE/clothing. Be aware that Reuters photojournalist James Akena was beaten by the military in 2018 on the pretext of not being visibly identifiable. However, even doing so does not guarantee your safety, as seen recently in the case of Kasirye Saif-Ilah Ashraf.
  • Minimize the amount of equipment and valuables you take with you on assignment, noting that journalist Daniel Lutaaya and cameraman Thomas Kitimbo were attacked in Lira in November and their laptop, camera chargers, and phones stolen.
  • Do not leave any equipment in vehicles, which could be vandalized and broken into, as highlighted by Robert Ssempala of the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-U).
  • Be aware that the police may confiscate equipment and/or force journalists to delete footage/photos, as documented by CPJ during political rallies in early 2020.
  • Exercise caution if using electronic devices that may be considered suspicious by the security forces, such as walkie talkies/two-way radios.
  • Keep your media credentials with you and easily accessible at all times in case the police ask to see them. A velcro strap transparent pouch that can be placed on your upper arm with your credentials in helps easily identify you as media. For freelancers, a letter from the commissioning employer is helpful.
  • Wear clothing that allows you to move swiftly. Avoid loose clothing and lanyards that can be grabbed, as well as any flammable material like nylon. Tie up any long hair.
  • Wear shoes with laces and some kind of ankle support that help facilitate a quick exit should it be necessary.

Positioning & Situational Awareness

  • Pay attention to any armed plainclothes operatives, who have used automatic rifles against opposition supporters, according to France24. Always remain alert and maintain a safe distance from such individuals.
  • Be aware that some market traders and boda boda drivers (motorcycle taxis) are in fact plainclothes officers monitoring opposition activity, especially in and around the vicinity of Bobi Wine’s office, according to sources CPJ spoke to. There is also significant CCTV surveillance in this area.
  • Be aware of road blockades, which have been used to force vehicles to stop and the passengers beaten and robbed, as reported by Lifegate.
  • Exercise extreme caution when taking photos or filming, especially around the offices of opposition parties, police, military and/or plainclothes officers, as well as state infrastructure such as airports, bridges, or military bases.
  • Continuously observe and read the mood and demeanor of the authorities in relation to the crowd dynamic. Police can become more aggressive if the crowd is agitated or vice versa. Visual cues such as the appearance of police dressed in riot gear, shield walls, or throwing of projectiles are potential indicators that aggression can be expected. Pull back to a safe location, or plan a quick extraction when such “red flags” are evident.
  • If violence is likely, consider reporting from a higher vantage point such as a building rooftop, upper floor window, or balcony. Even then you should exercise caution when filming, as highlighted by The Guardian.
  • Always stay in close proximity to hard cover and try to keep your back against a wall or something similar to protect your rear.
  • Keep to the periphery of any crowd, and have an emergency exit route planned. Avoid being sucked into the middle of a crowd where it is hard to escape, and never get trapped between the police and the protesters.
  • Be aware of the danger of potential stampedes. If in a team, identify agreed emergency rendezvous points to meet with others should you become separated.
  • Large crowds create potential risks of sexual assault. Journalists should always work with colleagues and have the means to raise the alarm.

COVID-19

  • Consider the risk of COVID-19 while in Uganda, noting that demonstrators and the security forces are likely to ignore any physical distancing guidance. Note that if tear gas and/or pepper spray is deployed, virus droplets could spread as individuals react to the effects. Ensure that you have 70% alcohol-based sanitizer, disposable gloves, and an N95 face mask (or FFP2 / FFP3) with you. For further guidance, please refer to CPJ’s dedicated COVID-19 safety advisory.

Digital Safety

Device Security

  • Journalists covering the lead up to the election have had their devices stolen, confiscated, and broken, as documented by CPJ. Before covering a rally or demonstration take steps to secure your devices and the content on them.
  • Backup and delete any data, including documents and photos that may contain sensitive or personal information that you would not want others to see.
  • Review the cloud account linked to the phone and remove documents that could put you or others at risk.
  • Remove any sensitive contacts from your phone and the from the cloud account linked to your device.
  • Put a password on your devices.
  • Ensure that your devices are fully charged before leaving to cover an event.
  • Regularly backup and delete data from your phone when you are at the event. This will help protect information on your devices if they are taken or broken.
  • Avoid leaving your devices unattended, for example leaving them to charge in a press room or internet cafe.
  • Be aware that your phone will be transmitting and recording your location via cell phone towers and apps and services on your phone.
  • Use encrypted communications to contact others.
  • Learn more about device security by reading the CPJ’s digital safety kit here.     

Online harassment

  • Journalists covering the campaign may be targeted by online harassers looking to discredit the journalist’s work and/or spread misinformation.
  • If you have been a target of an online attack or you feel that you may be subjected to online abuse throughout the election period then you should review what information is available about you on the internet and take steps to remove or protect it.
  • Consider speaking with your editor, newsroom, and/or colleagues about online abuse and create a plan for what to do if you are attacked.
  • Document any abuse you feel suggests that an online attack may become a physical attack, for example, information about your location being circulated online.
  • Online abusers may try to hack your accounts. Take steps to protect them by creating long and unique passwords. Read more about how to do that in the CPJ’s digital toolkit here.
  • Learn more about how to protect against targeted online attacks in CPJ’s safety note protecting against targeted online attacks.

Surveillance

  • A 2015 Privacy International report detailed the use of international surveillance software by the Museveni government to target opposition leaders and also some media workers. This risk is likely to increase during an election period.
  • Ugandan cybersecurity forces, with the assistance of employees of China’s Huawei Technologies Co., used spyware to infect the devices of Bobi Wine in 2019 and gain access to his social media and messaging apps, as well as track his location, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
  • Journalists should be aware that highly sophisticated spyware, known as Pegasus, may be operating in Uganda, according to Citizen Lab. Journalists looking to learn more about Pegasus and can find ways to better protect yourself can read the CPJ’s safety advisory here.

CPJ’s online Safety Kit provides journalists and newsrooms with safety information on physical, digital, and psychological safety resources and tools, including covering civil unrest. If you need assistance, journalists should contact CPJ via emergencies@cpj.org.

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