The brief closure of a controversial newspaper represents a worrying trend, observers say, as voices critical of government are banned from various media outlets.

President Yoweri Museveni has pardoned Red Pepper directors and senior editors and agreed to reopen the company after two months of police siege, Uganda’s The Monitor reported.

The reopening of the privately owned newspaper that has been critical of government followed a meeting at State House Entebbe on January 23rd.

The ground is set for Uganda’s “most influential newspaper to hit the streets again very soon,” reads part of Red Pepper’s statement, after the president warned the staff to stop being “reckless” and become “more professional” in their reporting.

Each of the officials was given a revised copy of Museveni’s autobiography and a booklet containing a lecture he gave on Nelson Mandela’s Day at Makerere University, to “sharpen their ideological awareness”. The directors, according to the statement, pledged a more transformed and professional publication going forward.

In November 2017, police raided the Red Pepper headquarters and the eight officials were arrested and charged with offences including publication of information prejudicial to security, libel and offensive communication. The suspects were granted bail on January 23rd.

Uganda Gays
Ugandans read the contentious tabloid in Kampala. Photo credit: Somali Update

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) included the eight staffers of the controversial tabloid in its 2017 global census of imprisoned journalists. Some may disagree with that decision, it acknowledged. After all, Red Pepper arguably endangered the lives of LGBTQ Ugandans by splashing the names of “200 top homos” across its pages back in 2014, when Museveni toughened criminal penalties for gays.

Outside of the country, some accused the daily of hate speech, but at home the government said nothing. The tables turned when Museveni’s administration cracked down hard on Red Pepper for republishing a story by a Rwandan outlet alleging a Ugandan plot to overthrow Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame.

Red Pepper‘s critics may view the prosecution of the journalists as poetic justice, but that misses the bigger point, said CPJ. The Ugandan media is under tremendous and continuous pressure from an administration that attempts to silence critical and independent voices, and this crackdown is yet another attempt to intimidate the press.

Local media and press freedom organisations, competitors and commentators have condemned the Red Pepper raid. As the country’s Africa Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) has stated: “Our defense of the tabloid is not to endorse its approach to journalism, but rather to highlight what Uganda’s Supreme Court has called ‘the greater danger of smothering alternative views of fact and opinion”.

“Those who are celebrating the silencing of Red Pepper should remember that some of the offences […] such as ‘offensive communication’, are as much a threat to ordinary Ugandans,” said ACME executive director, Peter Mwesige.

The effect of the state’s approach is felt beyond Red Pepper and is widely regarded as a tool to intimidate other journalists into self-censorship and to toe the government line. The Observer reported on December 7th that the management of Top Radio & TV had banned opposition politicians and other voices critical of government from all its shows.

Meanwhile, the Uganda Communications Commission has directed various media houses to suspend programmes or dismiss presenters considered critical of government, The Observer reported. Police have also recently summoned editors of the Monitor publications and New Vision and interrogated them about articles they published.

At least 262 journalists have been jailed for doing their job around the world and 66 of these were in Africa as of December 1st, according to CPJ. The north African powerhouse Egypt remained at number 1 in Africa, with at least 20 journalists in its prisons, while Eritrea with 16 came in in second place.

Speaking during an interview with News24, Angela Quintal, the CPJ Africa programme co-ordinator, said that such a development was against the tenets of democracy and the African Union’s press freedom declaration.

Said Quintal: “Journalists have the power of holding governments accountable. This is one of the reasons why too many governments are against journalists. Ethiopia, for example, is the home of the AU headquarters, but look at how it is violating journalists’ rights. [There] are many other countries which are doing exactly the same, and others are just quiet and not speaking up.”

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Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin:

Rwanda – Uganda: Terrorism Charges
Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 54, Issue 12, pp. 21673C

Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 54, Issue 12, pp. 21704C–21705C

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