Uganda Journalist Sees Eventual Exit Of Museveni

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"Museveni may wake up one day and ‘whew!’ like Mugabe, he may need fifty-one percent," Mwenda said, referring to the Zimbabwe elections where opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in the first round, forcing a run off.

[Global: Media And Democracy]

Uganda’s long-term ruler, Yoweri Museveni, could lose in the country’s next presidential election slated for three years from now, a leading Ugandan journalist told a cross-section of Americans and Ugandans interested in media and human rights issues here in New York today.

Mwenda, who has had run-ins with the authorities in Uganda, spoke at a luncheon hosted by George Soro’s Open Society Institute (OSI). Mwenda, who publishes a private newspaper, The Independent, in Uganda, is in New York to accept an award tomorrow from The Committee to Protect Journalists; he is one of five journalists selected by CPJ for its annual honor recognizing reporters who operate under extreme risk, around the world.

Mwenda who has been imprisoned several times, by order of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni , for his critical pieces exposing torture, human rights abuses, and unprecedented levels of corruption condoned and perpetuated by the regime, started off with a rather paradoxical assertion; that he was optimistic about the future of press freedom in Uganda. He attributed his optimism to what he referred to as the relative independence of the Ugandan judiciary.

The judiciary has rescued Mwenda on appeal, each time he has been arrested or "kidnapped," as he put it, by agents of the government.

In effect, he argued, the judiciary is the bulwark of press freedom in Uganda which has constrained the president’s rather nefarious designs against the press. Nonetheless, Mwenda made it clear that the environment for independent media in Uganda is extremely difficult as evidenced by the multitudes of independent publications that have failed ever since President Museveni came to power in 1986.

Museveni uses a variety of tools to jeopardize the viability of critical independent media that are perhaps more effective than overt raids of press premises and forced closure of critical media that the government employs from time to time, he said.

These tools include draconian "sedition" and anti-press criminal laws, some dating back to the era of British colonial rule that are still on Uganda’s statute books. Citing these provisions to prosecute him, the regime has saddled Mwenda with huge legal fees, which have now reached $58,000, way beyond his financial means, and have accumulated due to the need for legal representation in the courts of law.

Additionally, due to Uganda’s penchant for British-style legal technicalities which need to be addressed pending hearing of cases, Mwenda was, at one point, required to report to the police for daily interrogation for a period of three months, which made it exceedingly difficult for him to publish his nascent publication.

Despite the liberalization of the economy, the government is still the dominant economic actor in Uganda, especially in terms of advertising revenues which are the lifeblood of newspapers, Mwenda said. Cognizant of this reality, Museveni has banned government advertising in independent critical publications such as The Independent, thus constraining their growth and viability vis-a vis, the government publication, The New Vision Newspaper and associated publications that get all the advertisements from government departments.

Consequently, The New Vision Publishing company is flush with cash, which the government is using to buy and bribe many of the remaining independent media outlets such as radio stations, further constraining the space for independent expression, Mwenda said.

Moreover, Mwenda also noted, the government controls the major printing presses in Uganda, which forces independent media to struggle to meet their printing obligations, often relying on small printers with limited capacities.

President Museveni has also managed to leverage his economic liberalization policies and some semblance of tolerance to opposing views, relative to previous regimes, to mask his very poor human rights record, and muzzle international criticism, Mwenda said.

Unlike the case of Zimbabwe, where White farmers mounted an effective global media campaign, the local victims of Museveni’s policies and human rights abuses are indigenous Ugandans, lacking international social networks to effectively lobby and appeal to Western powers. Consequently, the World Bank and other private investors including the Aga Khan continue to pour money into Uganda, turning a blind eye to serious human rights abuses and unprecedented levels of corruption.

And, in the case of the Aga Khan -- that bought Uganda main independent Newspaper, the Monitor --even acquiesced in the government anti-free press policies, forcing the resignation of Mwenda from the publication.

Still, the regime’s capacity to bribe and coerce opponents is reaching its limit, due to resource constraints. Mwenda says Museveni’s organizational structure has crumbled and that he may no longer have the wherewithal required to deploy throughout the country and steal a presidential election again. "Museveni may wake up one day and ‘whew!’ like Mugabe, he may need fifty-one percent," Mwenda said, referring to the Zimbabwe elections where opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in the first round, forcing a run off. Tsvangirai refused to participate in the runoff, citing violence against his opponents, leading to the current stalemate in Harare.

Mwenda said it’s unlikely that Uganda would ever experience a similar type of paralysis; he said the military and police forces would abandon Museveni once it became clear he was vulnerable.


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