The government of Uganda is making the possibility of free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections impossible, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
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On Sunday, HRW released a report that investigated whether Ugandans are being provided with a healthful environment to assess candidates in time for the East African nation’s February elections.
HRW also looked in to whether journalists are being allowed to do their jobs in investigating the nation’s most-pressing issues and top candidates as well as civil society organizations’ (CSOs) ability to establish the needs of the people.
After conducting more than 170 interviews in eight towns starting in November 2015, HRW contends that the government has been playing an active role in intimidating and suppressing the political process, even though “political tensions are running high and the government faces public discontent on a range of issues, such as government allocation for health and education services, corruption, widespread unemployment combined with a massive youth population and the rising cost of living.”
In general, journalists revealed that both presidential and ruling party representatives promised trips, money, and training if they agreed to give auspicious coverage to the ruling party’s National Resistance Movement, where President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986.
However, if the solicited journalists refused to comply with the proposed demands, it was also communicated that their jobs and safety were at risk.
One radio journalist from Jinja said, “I think government intends to keep the people uninformed. You see, uninformed people are easy to manipulate. Cases of intimidation are prevalent….
“As journalists we are forced to cover up. In the reporting you don’t hit the nail on top. You have to communicate carefully. In election season we see this very clearly.”
In addition, journalists said that when they give opposition parties any coverage, police or district authorities allege they are “causing instability” or “inciting or encouraging violence.”
Civil society organizations (CSOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also said they are receiving similar accusations.
…The Ugandan government has increasingly tried to clamp down on domestic civil society organizations, particularly those working on governance, human rights and oil sector transparency. Employees of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stated that they were – like journalists – blamed for inciting violence or sabotaging development efforts by pointing out government inaction or failure, what in Uganda is known as “de-campaigning government.”
In this context, it has become increasingly difficult for civil society to discuss issues of importance to voters particularly in rural areas, such as free and fair elections, without fear of government interference and threats.
And the Non-Governmental Organizations Act threatens to further curtail CSOs’ and NGOs’ rights.
Despite significant improvements to the original bill when government presented it for parliamentary debate, the act as passed creates criminal penalties, including up to three years in jail, for any member of a NGO who engages “in any act, which is prejudicial to the interests of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda.”
What conduct constitutes the “interests” or the “dignity” of Ugandans is not defined. The bill would also potentially criminalize civil society efforts to work in coalitions unless the coalition was separately registered with the government non-profit sector regulator, currently known as the NGO Board.
An NGO leader admitted, “What happens here is that now people are in a state of self-censorship. They know things are wrong but people don’t want to get onto bad terms with government. They just don’t want to get into conflict. They are afraid to question things. There are new laws coming up that make the environment difficult….
“They fear concentrating on governance and accountability issues.”
There are eight candidates running against Museveni in the upcoming election, including his former strategist Amama Mbabazi as well as Kizza Besigye (pictured), who ran in the last three elections for the main opposition party Forum for Democratic Change and was placed under house arrest last year after the government decreed that his political rallies were illegal.