For the past 10 years, Uganda has been characterized by insecurity and general instability, including in form of citizen demonstrations against President Yoweri Museveni’s government. Terrorist attacks (whether real or fabricated) not only lead to the loss of lives and property, but they instill fear among the population and exacerbate insecurity in this East African country. The government has swiftly invoked legislation to fight (suspected) terrorism, following the 2001 attacks in the US, the 2010 twin bombings in Kampala, and more recently, the attacks of October and November 2021.
I argue in this article that the government of Uganda (mis)uses the anti-terrorism law to target its opponents and to stifle debate on important issues that affect the country. The use of anti-terrorism regulation to suppress dissenting views reflects growing intolerance of criticism of President Yoweri Museveni’s regime. Anti-terror law is invoked whenever it suits the authorities to limit individual freedoms of expression as well as freedom of the media.
Regulating terrorism in Uganda
Uganda has since the early 2000s been a close ally of the US in the war against terrorism on the African continent. As such, Uganda passed an Anti-terrorism Act in 2002, with media reports in 2001 stating that the US urged for expeditious passing of this law. The law criminalizes perpetration, planning, and participation in any terrorist activities. In so doing, anyone who engages in or carries out any act of terrorism faces death upon conviction. The law has since been amended thrice – in 2015, 2016 and 2017, bringing into being the Anti-terrorism (Amendment) Act 2017.
The Anti-terrorism Act brought into force and gave discretionary powers to the Directorate of Counter Terrorism; the Counter Terrorism Police Unit as well as the Joint Anti-Terrorism Taskforce to enforce the law and fight terrorism. The 2021 bomb attacks in Uganda strengthen the arguments for strong regulation and other counter-terrorism measures taken by President Museveni’s government. In October and November 2021 alone, four bomb attacks were reportedly carried out in Kampala. One such attack took place a few meters away from Kampala’s central police station, while the second one occurred near the Parliament, reflecting the boldness of the attackers, and at the same time raising questions regarding their real identity.
As noted earlier, Uganda has experienced general instability in form of political demonstrations and a series of shootings of prominent people, including that of the assistant inspector general of police, Andrew Felix Kaweesi, in 2017. The Minister for Works and Transport, Katumba Wamala, survived an assassination attempt in June 2021 in an attack that left his daughter and driver dead. While the government usually blames this instability on terrorists, the situation can be attributed to the growing unpopularity of President Museveni’s regime. He has been president since 1986. His government immediately blamed the October and November 2021 bombings on the ADF – a rebel group that is based in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Museveni’s government has since the 1990s been at war with the ADF, a rebel group purportedly linked to the Islamic State, accusing it of carrying out several bomb attacks in the country.
The attacks strengthened the justification for implementing certain security measures in and outside Uganda. By the end of 2021, Uganda People’s Defense Forces, the national military force, had entered the neighboring DR Congo, in a joint military operation that is intended to dislodge the rebels and put an end to their terrorist activities that potentially threaten safety in Uganda. Back home, the government reacted fast within its anti-terrorism apparatus, by arresting and/or killing those suspected to be connected to ADF and the bombings on the spot. The law gives officials and security agencies discretionary powers to enforce it and hunt down alleged terrorists. Moreover, the law gives the Minister of Internal Affairs powers to appoint a security officer to investigate terrorism cases using means such as communication surveillance (Section 18). It is up to the so-called security officers to interpret the law. This is problematic; first, because the law does not provide for judicial or independent oversight over investigations and second, because it is broad and hence subject to abuse.
The 2021 bombings have evoked a discourse on terrorism within and outside, questioning the authenticity of the government’s narrative that ADF is a terrorist group. As early as 2001, when the Anti-terrorism law was tabled as a bill in Parliament, there were concerns that the regulation would be used to target opponents of Museveni’s government and suppress his critics under the guise of averting terrorism. The governments’ high-handedness in dealing with suspects, characterized by arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings raises eyebrows and at the same time validates such sentiments. While I agree that terrorism ought to be fought, the Anti-terrorism Act is, as Unwanted Witness notes, repressive and contravenes international standards of freedom of expression. Aside from blatant violations of human rights, the law is a scarecrow that prevents those with genuine concerns from expressing themselves on matters relating to terrorism. Joseph Kasule, a Ugandan researcher, rightly highlights the dilemma facing Ugandans, when he observes that the government makes it almost treasonable to question the official narrative that the ADF rebels are behind some of these attacks. This point of view, unfortunately, paints an accurate picture of what is happening in different parts of the continent. Generally, criticizing leaders, questioning human rights violations, and reporting critically on state violence are regarded as abetting or participating in terrorism.
The anti-terrorism law journalism, and freedom of the media
Journalism and news media are not spared. As early as 2001, media houses in Uganda regarded the anti-terrorism law as intended to stifle the political opposition, rather than curbing terrorism. For example, the 2002 Anti-terrorism Act has a direct bearing on news media, as it criminalizes the publication and dissemination of information that may have any links to terrorism (Section 11). The law also provides for interception of any form of communication such as letters, emails and telephone calls, electronic surveillance, monitoring of meetings as well as searching premises of any persons or organizations. These provisions influence media houses since they directly relate to the journalistic work of gathering, investigating, and publishing news. The military has on several occasions raided and ransacked premises of media houses and confiscated documents and computers in search of evidence that would implicate individual journalists and their employers.
The detention of Doreen Biira for abetting terrorism in November 2016 is a good example of how the government uses the law to suppress journalists. Biira was arrested for filming and sharing videos of military brutality in western Uganda, in clashes that left over 70 people dead. The journalist was charged with abetting terrorism, a criminal offence punishable with seven years’ imprisonment upon conviction. This case awakened criticism of the anti-terrorism law and prompted human rights activists and journalists’ organizations to pressurize the government into dropping the terrorism charges against Biira. Equating the journalists’ work of relaying the actions of the army to terrorism ought to be condemned because it threatens the real essence of journalism. It promotes impunity and gives perpetrators of violence (against the citizenry) liberty to determine what should or not be reported.
A terrorism charge is every journalist’s worst fear, and it forces many to refrain from some journalistic activities. I interviewed several Uganda-based journalists in 2020 for a publication on counter-terrorism laws and freedom of expression and I found that government agents use counter-terrorism regulation as a weapon against critical reporting. For example, during the coverage of demonstrations, security agents can target “non-conforming” journalists and threaten to charge them with terrorism, something that potentially drives journalists into censorship. Journalists indicated that they sometimes refrain from interviewing sources out of fear of the repercussions that result from having contact with suspected terrorists. A newspaper journalist narrated an incident in which an anonymous caller wanted him to interview a then suspected leader of the terrorist organization ADF. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a great opportunity any journalist would have taken up. Who would turn down an opportunity to interview such a source? But the journalist in question was skeptical about the tip and eventually missed the interview after consulting with his superiors. The journalist will never know whether he missed an exclusive moment to interview and write a story about one of the most wanted men in Uganda at the time. It is only certain that the journalist saved himself and his employer problems that would most likely arise from being in contact with and subsequently sourcing information from a suspected terrorist. What is peculiar about this story is that the journalist mostly feared that the anonymous caller could be a state agent on a mission to set up the journalist.
Provisions in the anti-terrorism law relating to the interception of communication and surveillance directly affect journalists’ interaction with sources, as well as journalists’ ability to freely contact sources who authorities might label as terrorists (Section 19[4, 5]). Since the law provides for unfettered powers for unlawful surveillance and investigation of citizens, the law is invoked to monitor all forms of journalistic communication, potentially including communication with sources. Aside from contravening journalistic ideals, the law deters both journalists and sources from free expression.
Media reporting of terrorism-related occurrences
I return to terrorist incidents in Uganda and the subsequent government responses to illustrate how terrorism regulation has a bearing on media reporting of terrorism cases. One of the problems with the incentives to not report on terrorism, outlined above, is that reporting on terrorism ends up unbalanced and skewed towards the government stance. A peek into local media reports on the 2021 bombings and the aftermath show coverage that generally lacks in depth and analysis. Most of the reporting does not, for instance, question the quick and haphazard identification of alleged suspects, even in cases where the alleged suicide bombers perished in the explosions. In so doing, the media can be said to have promoted government narratives on terrorism by relaying reports from officials, in what I regard as shallow journalism. I, for example, expected the media to thoroughly critique the decision to deploy in DR Congo under the pretext of fighting terrorists because of the history of Uganda’s involvement in the affairs of her neighbor in the west. In the past, independent news media provided critical coverage of Uganda’s 1998 military invasion of DR Congo. Meanwhile, independent media houses such as the Daily Monitor, which endeared itself to readers through investigating and extensively covering government action (or inaction) on issues such as corruption and national security, mostly reported on briefings from government sources.
Now, the increased intolerance to critical journalism presents a dilemma for privately-owned media, for whom business is more important than investing in a story that has the potential to “kill” an outlet. The media ought to be forgiven for treading carefully in its reporting because of the terrorism tag attached to military action. For individual journalists, facing terrorism-related charges is chilling, as can be illustrated by the experience of a radio journalist who was arrested in 2011 over terrorism-related treason charges. While the case was dropped in 2018, the journalist decried the resources he spent on the case in addition to the psychological torture that he endured for seven years. Criminal charges of this nature drain journalists physically, financially, and mentally and slow down their career progress. Some reporters chose to leave journalism for less risky careers, while others resort to covering beats that pose no risks.
Freedom of the media just like freedom of expression are provided for in the 1995 Constitution of Uganda, but spaces for exercising these rights are growing narrower by the day. Legal and physical harassment from the authorities threaten privately funded media institutions and deter journalists from covering and interrogating certain issues. There are, for example, contradicting reports on who was behind the September and October 2021 bomb explosions. While the government of Uganda immediately identified suspected terrorists as associated with the ADF, the Islamic State (IS) issued a statement in which they claimed responsibility for the bombing and named the three suicide bombers involved in the attacks. The Observer, a local publication, dared to run an article that pits the government statement against that of the IS and asked, “who is the telling the truth about the Kampala twin bombings?”
Many Ugandans do not agree with the government about some of these terrorist incidents. Those who try to challenge the government narrative face imprisonment and trial. For example, journalist Timothy Kalyegira was sent to the country’s maximum security prison in 2011, over reports that he doubted whether it was the al-Shabaab that bombed and killed over 70 football fans in the 11 July 2010 twin bombings. Whereas several Ugandans voiced their concerns through social media about government’s reports on the identities of the 2021 suicide bombers, few express themselves on the subject in offline spaces where they can be identified.
Discourse on terrorism is suppressed on two levels. One, the law on terrorism limits gathering and reporting of news related to terrorism. Two, reporting, commentary on terrorism cases is suppressed as one risks arrest and prosecution under different other criminal laws. Endemic court cases, threats of closure, raids of media houses’ premises affect journalism. This does not only impact the profession but the entire country’s journey towards good governance, since the wings of the Fourth Estate are clipped to the extent that it is cautious about holding those who hold the instruments of power to account. This affects not only journalists and journalistic institutions but the entire Ugandan citizenry whose freedoms of information and expression on issues relating to terrorism are limited.
Terrorism should without a doubt be dealt with but the means with which it is addressed ought to be subject to criticism by independent institutions, such as the media. This is especially important for contexts where democracy is still developing.