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17.04.2016 Uganda

Uganda Human Rights Network For Journalists Wins Lord Astor Award

By Our Online Correspondent
On behalf of HRNJ-Uganda, Henry Gombye receives Lord Astor Award from Lord Guy Black.
LISTEN APR 17, 2016
On behalf of HRNJ-Uganda, Henry Gombye receives Lord Astor Award from Lord Guy Black.

A human rights organisation, which been helping journalists in an East African country by fighting court cases against the brutality of the police and military forces in the country, was awarded with the prestigious Lord Astor Award for their role.

At a dinner held at the Red Fort Restaurant in Soho Central London -the coordinator Robert Ssempala and Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) legal adviser Diana Nandudu were in absentia recognised for their efforts by the executive director of one of Britain’s leading newspaper, the Telegraph, Lord Guy Black.

Ssempala and Nandudu have immensely played a huge role in helping Ugandan journalists currently facing extreme police brutality.

Praising the duo for helping persecuted journalists in Uganda, Lord Black who also doubles as Chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union (CPU)’s Media Trust, said: “The battle for freedom of expression is far from won in Uganda, but the dedicated work of HRNJ-Uganda has helped sustain the will to win against fearsome odds.” He added: “To succeed as such an indispensable and unflinching friend of press freedom is the finest tradition of CPU Astor Awards. It’s that triumph which makes the Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda so deserving of this accolade.”

He said attempts to have Ssempala and Nandudu present and receive the trophy in person had unfortunately been in vain. Last presented 11 years ago, Lord Black said it had been decided to make a new award and was delighted to honour the HRNJ-Uganda with the award as a recognition for their contribution towards the freedom of speech and the press. In their absence, the award was presented to former BBC Correspondent Henry Gombya, himself a long-time campaigner for free speech and the freedom of the press.

Gombya thanked Lord Black and promised to make sure the trophy reached the recipients. He [Gombya] thanked Lord Black and his organisation for recognising the wonderful and remarkable work being done by HRNJ-Uganda. He told the audience that the organisation was the only one of its kind operating in the Great Lakes Region and that it had done a remarkable job in helping journalists often caught at the receiving end of brutal police officials. He said HRNJ-Uganda has used the Ugandan constitution effectively in reminding those harassing journalists of the provisions given in the Ugandan constitution for freedom of the press and speech.

The Lord Astor Award is an honour to individual journalists and organisations from the Commonwealth countries in recognition of their contributions and involvement for advocating press freedom and development. It’s been honoured since 1970 in the memory of Lord William Astor of Hever for his contributions as President of the CPU and his relentless involvement in the development of press freedom. Previously, individuals who have received this prestigious award include: Mabel Strickland of Malta in 1971, Derek Ingram (a founder member of the CJA and current President Emeritus of the association) in 1978, Lyle Turbull (Australia) in 1984, Gilbert Ahnee of Mauritius in 2000, Kuldip Nayar of India in 2003 among others.

“Ugandan media has faced a perpetual litany of threats, murders, kidnap and politically-motivated or police brutality of journalists, as well as detention, censorship, criminal defamation, assault and destruction of media equipment that has persisted for decades,” said Lord Black, which exactly compatible with the current characteristics of the security officials in a country that continues to harass the media and make it very difficult for journalists to do their work and compel the government to account to the citizens.

Lord Black is not an isolated observer of the situation of journalists in Uganda, the US representative to the UN Samantha Power, recently criticised the Kampala regime for shutting down the social media and the 2016 poll verdict after the country’s Supreme Court ruled that Gen. Museveni was ‘validly’ declared winner.

"Ten years on, the threats [against Uganda journalists] remain and could worsen, following this year’s disputed presidential election, ” said Lord Black in reference to the recent presidential election, which many in the opposition ranks contend that Gen Yoweeri Museveni using state tools stole their victory.

Gen. Museveni's main challenger, Dr Kizza Besigye could not have time to collect evidences to file a petition to court as he remained under house arrest with security organs were permanently stationed around his residence.

One candidate who contested in the February 18, 2016 Uganda polls, John Patrick Amama Mbabazi also disputed the elections and petitioned the Supreme Court, which threw out the petition on technicalities despite several independent reports that elections were not free and fair.

Several voices from western capitals, particularly the powers that have been supplementing the Kampala regime’s annual budget, have come out openly to criticise the elections. European Union (EU) Elections observers mission in their preliminary report said that the ‘2016 Uganda polls were not free and fair.’

Both the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA) are part of Uganda’s development partners, with huge financial and military assistance and they have since expressed concerns about Gen Museveni’s continued grip on power in their independent view is a “threat” to Uganda’s future. The names of Ugandan journalists Bahati Remmy and Elijah Turyagumanawe of NBS Television were on the mouths of many journalists who attended the CJA conference at Open University in Camden Town -London. Several praised NBS’ Turyagumanawe coverage of the situation at the home of Dr Kizza Besigye, particularly when he was shoved onto a police track and driven to Kasangati Police Station, 12.2 kilometres north of the capital Kampala. During the whole journey, Turyagumanawe continued reporting live on camera. “It was the most exciting piece of news item for a journalist to report his own arrest until pushed into the police cell,” said Shannon Vanraes, a reporter from Canada in reference to Turyagumanawe’s incident

Lord Black, a member of the British House of Lords said: “But the landscape has now changed. Journalists still face oppression but they do not stand alone. HRNJ -Uganda, under the leadership of their national co-ordinator Robert Ssempala and legal officer Diana Nandudu, are forever by their side – often literally and at personal risk, monitoring journalistic human rights and protecting them from abuse.” In a tone that suggest Lord Black has the current situation in Uganda at his fingertips, he intoned: “When police beat up a broadcaster, Ssempala led the protest march – and was himself arrested. When journalists are detained without cause, HRNJ-Uganda is on the spot with legal advice.”

“One grateful reporter fresh from the cells advised colleagues never to be without the phone numbers of ‘the good men and women of HRNJ-Uganda,” he narrated to the audience, adding that: ” When HRNJ-Uganda activists are not on the frontline, they are educating the media on human rights and conducting seminars to raise journalistic standards, reduce risk and promote good governance. “I have spent most of my career fighting for press and media freedom,” said Lord Black. “But sometimes I think we ought more often to stop and remind ourselves why press freedom matters. I get used to politicians talking about how they support a free press – usually they prefer another country’s press freedom to their own – but very few of them really understand what it is we fight for, and it’s important we articulate that.”

Lord Black expressed sorrow over the lack of progress in expanding media freedom across the globe, saying that: “We seem to be going backwards – and the Commonwealth is no exception."

"I simply can’t even pretend to understand how difficult it must be to be a reporter in a country where intimidation is rife and Governments use the full force of the criminal law to stop you reporting and sometimes jail you for telling the truth. But that happens in a growing number of places,” said Lord Black. He explained further: “For me press and media freedom is not an abstract point of ideology or just a high-blown principle. It really matters to the way society operates – for three reasons:

First, it has the power to hold Governments, public authorities and other parts of the State – in other words, those who exercise power – to account. It is the watchdog of the public interest – a guardian against corruption, incompetence, waste, hypocrisy and greed, and a campaigner against injustice. Second, unlike regulated media, it alone has the ability to conduct long term investigations, unhindered by the fear of prior restraint. And third, in any state where there are free and fair elections, the free press has a fundamental role in transmitting information to voters, independently of political interests, and explaining often complex policy issues in a way which is understandable and intelligible to the great majority of electors. Free elections simply can’t take place without a free media.”

The second main barrier to press freedom, he [ Lord Black] added, was the physical safety of journalists, in both the print and broadcast media. “The press can only be free if reporters and editors can get on with their job without fear of physical violence or, in the worst cases, fear for their lives. Yet in too many parts of the world, there is an appalling record on the safety of journalists.”

He further said that those three issues in fact go to the heart of what a democracy and a free society are about. He said this was summed up so well by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, when he said: ‘Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it’. He said that some two centuries ago, but the reality he spoke is timeless. These are fundamental truths to which I believe all those in the media should hold firm. But I am painfully aware that life is not as simple as that – and it is difficult to live up to these high ideals.”

“While all those in the independent media want to hold those in power to account, and undertake investigations in the public interest, in many parts of the world daily life as a journalist is a terrible struggle. A struggle to publish information in the face of repressive laws; a struggle to extract information from secretive public authorities; a struggle to make the money to invest in journalism and technology – or just to pay the salary bill, and, tragically far too often, a struggle to keep safe and go about work without fear of violence or intimidation.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, nearly 1,200 journalists have been killed in line of duty in the last 25 years. Although we are only at the start of April, eight journalists have already been killed this year. And intimidation and harassment of reporters by the police and others is still commonplace in some countries, with often lengthy jail sentences handed down to those – including bloggers – who make a nuisance of themselves to those in power.

The CPJ also lists the top 20 deadliest countries for journalists over the last 25 years, and six of them are in the Commonwealth – with Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Rwanda and Sierra Leone all featuring high up. In too many cases, the perpetrators have rarely, if ever, been brought to justice as we saw in Sri Lanka with the cold-blooded murder of leading editor Lasantha Wickrematunga on his way to work in January 2009, a dreadful crime for which no one has yet to be charged.

“It was into this atmosphere of constant menace that the Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda was born in 2006, the ‘new kid on the block ‘in the ceaseless battle for freedom of expression,” says Lord Black.

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