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Cablegate: Uganda: Abducted and Imprisoned Journalist Charged

VZCZCXRO8051
RR RUEHRN RUEHROV
DE RUEHKM #1074/01 2601401
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 171401Z SEP 09
FM AMEMBASSY KAMPALA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 1779
INFO RUCNIAD/IGAD COLLECTIVE
RUEHXR/RWANDA COLLECTIVE
RUEHKH/AMEMBASSY KHARTOUM 0821
RHMFISS/HQ USAFRICOM STUTTGART GE
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 KAMPALA 001074

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/17/2019
TAGS: PHUM PGOV KDEM UG
SUBJECT: UGANDA: ABDUCTED AND IMPRISONED JOURNALIST CHARGED
WITH SEDITION

REF: A. KAMPALA 01055
B. KAMPALA 01044
C. STATE 67260
D. HILLSMAN-OJIKUTU EMAILS

Classified By: Pol/Econ Chief Aaron Sampson for
reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (C) Summary: Ugandan authorities released radio host
Robert Kalundi Sserumaga on bail on September 15 after
charging him with six counts of sedition for comments made
during a live September 11 television show. Sserumaga was
abducted and imprisoned by the Police Criminal Investigation
Division's Intelligence Unit, and claims to have been beaten.
Sserumaga, who is an ethnic Baganda, alleged that the
Ugandan government and members of the ruling National
Resistance Movement (NRM) were using the September 10-11
riots as a pretext to arrest opposition intellectuals and
settle political scores. On September 17, Ministry of
Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Ambassador James Mugume
defended the decision to arrest Sserumaga and close selected
radio stations as necessary steps to save Uganda from the
same forms of ethnic violence that engulfed Rwanda and Kenya.
As Uganda struggles to balance freedom of expression with
public safety, the circumstances of Sserumaga's arrest and
the suspension of other journalists show once again that in
Uganda, the preservation of peace and security comes first.
End Summary.

---------------------------
Journalist Arrested, Beaten
---------------------------

2. (C) Well-known journalist and radio talk show host Robert
Kalundi Sserumaga described the circumstances of his arrest
and detention to the U.S. Mission officers on September 15
after posting bail to secure his release from custody.
Sserumaga was accompanied by family members who have
surrounded him to ward off any subsequent attempts to
threaten his safety. He appeared with a bandage on his hand
where an IV was inserted while receiving care during a brief
hospital stay following his arrest, but otherwise showed no
outward signs of injury.

3. (C) Sserumaga said he was bundled into an unmarked vehicle
by pistol-wielding plain-clothed assailants as he departed
the studios of WBS-TV on the evening of September 11.
Sserumaga had just finished recording a live television talk
show on the September 10-12 riots which left, at last count,
24 dead and more than 100 injured (refs A and B for
background). Restrained by three men in the back of the
sedan, Sserumaga said he struggled with his captors while the
vehicle drove though Kampala. Sserumaga said his attempts to
kick the vehicle's automatic gear shift out of gear and open
the car doors forced the security agents to sit on him, hold
down his arms and legs, push his head back, and choke him.
When he realized that the vehicle was no longer heading in
the direction of Kampala's Central Police Station, Sserumaga
said he demanded to go to a police station.

4. (C) Instead his captors delivered him to what Sserumaga
described as an unmarked derelict police station that had a
newly-painted interior. There, he was locked in a constantly
illuminated, windowless cell with 26 others. His cell mates
included shirtless men caught up in post-riot sweeps of the
city, and a local government official arrested at gun-point
in his pajamas after police lured him outside to help
"resolve" a neighborhood dispute. The prisoners suspected
two other inmates of being government informants deliberately
placed in the cell. Sserumaga described a young male inmate
who seemed to have a broken leg and was so badly beaten
around his face that he could not lay his head on the cell's
cement floor. Sserumaga let the boy use his leg as a pillow.

5. (C) Sserumaga and other prisoners were occasionally
removed from the cell to undergo questioning, beatings, and
what Sserumaga described as clumsy forms of intimidation.
Sserumaga was unable to ascertain what branch of the Ugandan
security services had arrested him as his captors wore no
uniforms or insignias. His family, meanwhile, posted news of
his disappearance on the internet, contacted international
journalist protection groups, and spoke with the Irish
Ambassador to Uganda (Sserumaga is reportedly a dual
Ugandan-Irish national). Sserumaga's brother attributed his
eventual transfer to a real police station on September 12 to
a telephone call by the Irish Ambassador and the
international response to Sserumaga's arrest. Sserumaga was
subsequently moved from police custody to a local hospital to

KAMPALA 00001074 002 OF 004


undergo routine medical observation for a suspected
concussion.

--------------
Police Tactics
--------------

6. (C) Inspector General of Police, Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura,
personally assured Sserumaga's family on September 12 that
Sserumaga was in police custody at a "gazetted," meaning an
officially recognized, police station. However, family
members who later tried to find the police station with the
help of local taxi drivers were unsuccessful. Member of
Parliament Beti Olive Namisango Kamya, who provided the
collateral required for Sserumaga to post bail, told the
Embassy that the building where Sserumaga was originally
detained was an un-gazetted "safe house."

7. (C) Sserumaga said he initially thought he had been
arrested by the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task force (JATT). Gen.
Kayihura, however, said the JATT did not participate in
Sserumaga's arrest and that Sserumaga had been in police
custody since his initial arrest. On September 16,
presidential advisor Moses Byaruhanga said Sserumaga was
arrested by the Intelligence Unit under the Police's Criminal
Investigation's Division (CID). The Intelligence Unit is led
by David Magara, a known human rights offender (refs C and D).

8. (C) Sserumaga believes the government and the NRM are
using the September 11-12 riots as a pretext to round up
intellectuals and those critical of the government. He noted
that the Local Council Chairman he met while in the
Intelligence Unit's safe house belonged to the opposition
Democratic Party (DP) and had recently tried to blow the
whistle on local NRM officials who were creating fake
villages to which they could assign phantom polling places
for the 2011 elections. On September 15, Museveni said he
had ordered the arrest of DP publicity secretary Betty
Nambooze for inciting rioters. Sserumaga's brother said he
had spoken to Nambooze from where she is currently hiding to
avoid arrest.

---------------------------------------------
Another Museveni Critic Charged with Sedition
---------------------------------------------

9. (C) Authorities warned WBS-TV that the station risks
closure if it released recordings of the September 11 talk
show. The Ugandan Broadcasting Council suspended indefinitely
the talk show's host, Peter Kibazo, and one other guest who
appeared on the September 11 show. The Mission obtained a
copy of the show on September 14 from an official at the
Ugandan Broadcasting Council.

10. (C) During the show, in addition to describing the
Government of Uganda as a colonial occupying force in
Buganda, Sserumaga questioned President Museveni's upbringing
and integrity. "Are we dealing with seriously well-formed
people," asked Sserumaga of the President and NRM senior
leaders, "or are we dealing with people who are suffering
from a poor upbringing?" At another point Sserumaga said
Museveni resorted to the use of force "because of poor
upbringing and thinking that he can always fool people."

11. (C) Sserumaga also challenged Museveni's frequent refrain
about his 1993 decision to personally restore Uganda's
traditional Kingdoms by arguing that it was the Buganda who
enabled Museveni to found the NRM. Sserumaga then wondered
why none of the Baganda leaders who joined with Museveni in
the 1960s and 1970s survived while many of Museveni's closest
allies from western Uganda did. He also accused Museveni of
conniving to secure oil rights in the western Uganda region
of Bunyoro and encouraged the people of Bunyoro to "wake up".
When asked by moderator Peter Kibazo - now indefinitely
suspended by the Uganda Broadcasting Council - if he could
identify any positive conclusions to the two days of rioting,
Sserumaga - who is himself a Baganda - facetiously said it
was "good news" Ugandans from all over Uganda could unite to
repress the Baganda.

12. (C) Authorities have charged Sserumaga with six counts of
sedition based on these comments and ordered him to surrender
his passports. Sserumaga denied the charges, saying he had
no intention of inciting hatred against the President.
Member of Parliament Kamya, who is facing a sedition charge
of her own stemming from a January 2008 newspaper article,
noted that the government will not be able to prosecute
Sserumaga until the Constitutional Court rules on a challenge

KAMPALA 00001074 003 OF 004


over the constitutionality of the sedition and sectarian
clauses located in Sections 39-41 of Uganda's penal code.
The court challenge, which was initiated by The Independent
editor Andrew Mwenda, has been pending since 2005 when Mwenda
was charged with 15 counts of sedition. Mwenda was arrested
and charged with sedition again just last month after The
Independent published a cartoon of Museveni reviewing a
checklist for rigging the 2011 elections.

13. (C) With the constitutional challenge to the sedition law
still unresolved, sedition charges can be a de facto form of
systematic harassment as those charged are required to report
once or in some cases twice a month to local authorities.
Those who have had their passports confiscated and wish to
travel abroad must go through a prolonged process to request
their passport's return. Those who still retain their
passports, like MP Kamya, must also obtain official
permission to leave Uganda.

----------------------------------
MFA: Uganda is not Rwanda or Kenya
----------------------------------

14. (C) On September 17, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Permanent Secretary Amb. James Mugume defended Sserumaga's
arrest, the response of Ugandan security forces to the
rioters, and the closure of four local radio stations. He
stressed that there are more than 50 radio stations in
Kampala and over one hundred across Uganda and that the
Uganda Broadcasting Council had zeroed in on just four for
inciting violence. Amb. Mugume said authorities warned the
Buganda-run Central Broadcasting Service (CBS) radio to curb
ethnic hate speech well before last week's riots, and that
Uganda moved quickly to shut the station down once it was
clear CBS was inciting listeners not only to riot but also to
single out non-Baganda for harassment or worse. Mugume said
Sserumaga's televised comments in on September 11 contained
many of the same code words, albeit in English rather than
Luganda, used by Baganda radio to encourage acts of violence
and ethnic division.

15. (C) Referring specifically to Rwanda and Radio Mille
Collines, Mugume noted that the international community did
not realize that Rwandan radio stations were inciting
genocide until it was too late. Mugume said the Ugandan
government believed that without immediate action to quell
the violence and the radio stations inciting it, the riots
would quickly escalate out of control. "If the killing of
police officers had continued," said Mugume, "it would have
been mayhem." Mugume reiterated an offer by Minister of
Foreign Affairs Sam Kutesa and the Inspector General of
Police to provide English language transcripts of selected
CBS broadcasts (septel). He said he understood the U.S. and
European interest in encouraging Uganda to consolidate
democratic gains and respect freedom of expression, but said
that if Uganda moved as quickly as the West would like,
Uganda could lose the gains it has achieved over the last 20
years. Observing that Kenya nearly "lost it" in 2007-2008,
Mugume said Uganda was determined not to make the same
mistakes. He also appealed to the U.S. Mission to ensure
that Washington understood the internal calculations behind
the Ugandan government's response to the September 10-12
riots.

--------------------------------------------- -------
Comment: Balancing Press Freedoms with Public Safety
--------------------------------------------- -------

16. (C) Ugandan officials explained the crack down on
independent media and the closing of radio stations as a
necessary step to muffle ethnically charged "hate speech" and
prevent further riots. This argument may be a valid point
leading to the closure of the Buganda-run CBS radio, as there
are numerous reports linking violent rhetoric emanating from
the Luganda-language CBS to the intimidation and harassment
of western Ugandans and Asians. Following the riots, members
of our locally employed staff reported witnessing attempts to
identify, humiliate and physically threaten people from
Museveni's region of western Uganda. The government now faces
a delicate balancing act with CBS, as some Buganda are
threatening further violence if CBS is not restored. But
turning the station back on could result in renewed ethnic
vitriol.

17. (C) Peter Kibazo, the suspended television talk show host
who moderated the discussion that landed Sserumaga in hot
water, told the U.S. Mission that the government needed to
take CBS radio off the air to preserve the peace. He

KAMPALA 00001074 004 OF 004


described other closed radio stations and suspended
journalists - including himself and Sserumaga - as
"collateral damage." Sserumaga's arrest, other journalist
suspensions, the arrest of Democracy Party MP Issa Kikungwe,
and the arrest warrant for DP publicity secretary Betty
Nambooze for inciting riots and hatred suggest a diminished
willingness on the part of the Ugandan government to tolerate
dissent. Ironically, the local and international backlash
against Museveni's media crackdown may provide cover for the
small number of ethnic Baganda extremists who actually are
trying to incite ethnic violence.
LANIER

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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