Ugandan authorities should unconditionally release The Alternative Digitalk television journalists Norman Tumuhimbise and Faridah Bikobere, drop any pending investigations against seven other journalists from the online media outlet, and rigorously investigate allegations that at least two of these journalists suffered serious physical abuse while in the custody of security personnel, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.
On the afternoon of March 10, a group of armed police and military officers raided the offices of The Alternative Digitalk, arresting the nine and confiscating equipment, including cameras, laptops, and books, according to media report, a statement by the local press rights group Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-U), as well as police and court documents reviewed by CPJ.
The journalists arrested that day are Norman Tumuhimbise, The Alternative Digitalk’s executive director who is also an activist and a published author; programs director Arnold Mukose; TV host Faridah Bikobere; producer Jeremiah Mukiibi; presenters Lilian Luwedde, Teddy Teangle Nabukeera, Tumusiime Kato, and Rogers Tulyahabwe; and an intern, Jacob Jeje Wabyona, according to Tumuhimbise’s brother Innocent Ainebyona, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and the HRNJ-Ustatement.
On March 15 and 16, seven of the journalists were released on police bond, but are still under investigation on charges of sedition and cyberstalking, according to human rights lawyer Eron Kiiza and the HRNJ-U-appointed lawyer Geoffrey Turyamusima, both of whom are working on the case and spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
Two journalists, Tumuhimbise and Bikobere, remain in jail, and were charged with cyberstalking and “offensive communication,” during a court hearing in the capital Kampala on March 16, according to Turyamusima and court documents reviewed by CPJ. During the hearing, Bikobere and Tumuhimbise told the court they had been severely physically abused while in state custody, Ainebyona and Turyamusima told CPJ.
“Authorities should unconditionally release Norman Tumuhimbise and Faridah Bikobere, drop all charges against them, end all investigations against other The Alternative Digitalk journalists, and return their confiscated equipment. Allegations that these journalists have been severely physically abused should be investigated credibly, holding anyone responsible to account,” said CPJ sub-Saharan Africa representative Muthoki Mumo. “President Yoweri Museveni, whose name has been invoked in these proceedings, should also declare that he is against arbitrary detentions of the press and condemn acts of abuse by security personnel.”
Cyberstalking and “offensive communication” can carry prison terms of up to five and two years respectively under Uganda’s Computer Misuse law. Sedition can carry up to seven years, according to the penal code
Kiiza and Ainebyona told CPJ that The Alternative Digitalk is an offshoot of Alternative Uganda, an activist group headed by Tumuhimbise and of which Ainebyona is also a member, which campaigns for better governance in Uganda. On its social media accounts, the group defines itself as a “non partisan (sic) and non-violent social movement” campaigning for “youth led change.”
CPJ’s review of The Alternative Uganda’s YouTube channel, where it has about 2,700 followers, and Facebook page, with over 24,300 followers, shows that it publishes The Alternative Digitalk’s programming, such as interviews, including with politicians and government officials, analysis of current affairs as well as entertainment and lifestyle programming.
In the court documents, police allege the offenses were committed by the journalists between January 2020 and March 9, 2022, against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in the form of content published by The Alternative Digitalk about two of Tumuhimbisi’s recently published books. The books, “The Komanyoko Politics: Unsowing the Mustard Seed” and “Liars and Accomplices,”are sharply critical of the Museveni government, according to media reports, Kiiza, and CPJ’s review of “The Komanyoko Politics.” [Editor’s note: Komanyoko is a vulgar insult originally from Kiswahili.]
In several YouTube and Facebook posts in late February and early March made by The Alternative Uganda, which streams The Alternative Digitalk’s content, The Alternative Digitalk advertised Tumuhimbise’s books and announced the planned March 30 launch event in Kampala. On March 1, the outlet published an hour-long interview with a retired judge who wrote the foreword to “The Komanyoko Politics.”
In that book, excerpts of which CPJ reviewed, Tumuhimbise’s commentary describes Uganda’s political culture as “vulgar” and full of “malice, fights, insults, greed.” He also alleges that the president “only tells the truth by mistake” and criticizes government appointments for Museveni’s family, including his son, Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, and wife, Janet Museveni.
Copies of this book were among those confiscated by the security officers who raided the media outlet’s offices, according to a police search certificate, a document outlining how the search was carried out and listing those who witnessed it, reviewed by CPJ. The officers also confiscated four cameras, microphones, several laptops, hard disks, as well as CDs and a company vehicle, according to that same document.
On March 16 and 17, when seven of the journalists were released on bond from the police’s Special Investigation Division in Kireka, a suburb of Kampala, two of them were limping, Ainebyona told CPJ. CPJ was unable to immediately communicate with the released journalists, whose phones were confiscated when they were arrested.
During the March 16 court hearing, Bikobere said she needed medical attention because she had been beaten by officers and was passing blood in her urine, according to Turyamusima. A video clip posted on YouTube shows part of Bikobere’s testimony in which she says she feels pain in her stomach, back, and chest; has bruises all over her body; and offers to “undress” so that her injuries can be put on record.
Tumuhimbise also told the court that he had been beaten, saying he was punched in the head and forced to drink and unknown substance, according Ainebyona and Turyamusima. Both journalists were remanded to Luzira Prison in Kampala until their next hearing on March 21.
Uganda military spokesperson Brigadier General Felix Kulayigye told CPJ by phone that the military’s involvement in the raid on The Alternative Digitalk was in support of a police operation and referred CPJ to the police for comment. Kulayigye declined to answer questions on allegations of torture, saying the journalists had not been in the army’s custody.
Calls and text messages to Uganda police spokesperson Fred Enanga and President Museveni’s senior press secretary Nabusayi Lindah Wamboka were unanswered.