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Uganda: The shrinking space for freedom of speech

A few days ago the Paris-based group Reporters without Borders (RSF) released a report that caused some distress to Uganda’s information minister. The RSF report detailed the difficulties faced by Ugandan journalists and showed how the space for media freedom in the country has been shrinking.

Mary Karooro Okurut, the information minister, responded by saying that the report does not give an “accurate picture of press freedom in Uganda.”

The RSF’s Press Freedom Index ranks Uganda at 139 out of 170 countries surveyed worldwide. This is something that should obviously worry human rights activists. The report also condemns the National Resistance Movement (NRM), the ruling party, for limiting the media industry’s ability to operate freely.

Actually, though, the media should be applauded for their willingness to cover various controversial issues in this country. These are matters of national importance, ranging from the economic crisis that resulted in the “Walk to Work” protests to the debate about corruption in the oil sector.

Like any other reasonable person, I would strongly agree that the media be granted the freedom to work. But that may be a bit much to ask from a regime like the one we have here in Uganda. And perhaps matters are complicated by the political and economic hardships the country faces.

Ugandan government security operatives have threatened, intimidated, and in some cases tortured journalists. These experiences have transformed journalism into a risky profession, one in which its practitioners are susceptible to torture and unlawful arrest. You can get arrested for covering stories that make the state uncomfortable. Even radio presenters have become targets. The resulting climate of fear means that many Ugandans no longer bother discussing politics in the open.

And yet the 1995 constitution of the Republic of Uganda, as well as its amended version, clearly provide for the freedom of speech: Article 29 (1) (a) specifies that “every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media.”

It goes without saying that his principle is no longer widely observed. The state, indeed, actively works to limit freedom of speech. Its main tool for doing this is the police.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the police had a reputation as protectors of the lives and property of the citizens of Uganda. That is their constitutional duty as an institution. Nowadays, however, their mission seems to have changed.

The police targeted journalists during the “Walk to Work” campaigns. In January 2012, a shot was fired at a journalist by plainclothes security personnel travelling in police vans. In November of last year a Rwandan journalist was shot dead in Uganda. Dozens of reporters have been beaten and injured and their equipment confiscated in the course of their work. (The photo above show a man fleeing police tear gas during a Jan. 24 protest in a suburb of Uganda.)

The reputation of the police among ordinary Ugandans is dismal – and not only because of the way it treats the press. Corruption and the abuse of human rights have also done a great deal to widen the divide between the police and the public. This divide will only deepen unless the government does something to clean up this mess. Getting the police out of the media business might be a good place to start.

MICHELE SIBILONI/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Another day in Venezuela: Sukhois over a shantytown

"I'm glad you're here," says Carmen. "I don't know if you know this, but a few weeks ago, the guy who delivers the school lunches witnessed four people getting gunned down at seven in the morning -- right here, just as the kids were coming to class. Now he doesn't want to come anymore. He's afraid he's next."

Welcome to Escuela Ebel Pastor Oropeza, a municipal school for special-needs children in the heart of Petare, Caracas' biggest, meanest slum (shown in the photo above). Surprisingly, the opposition won a 2007 election that put it in charge of the local government, including this school.

Carmen, one of the heroic teachers at the school, matter-of-factly recites these grievances to the authorities accompanying me, while at the same time giving us a slice of birthday cake for another teacher. Life and death, it's all in a day's work here, she says.

Escuela Oropeza treats at-risk children from the entire barrio. Kids with hyper-activity, Asperger's, ADD, and various learning disabilities find a sanctuary from the chaos of the shantytown in the school's tidy, narrow classrooms.

I ask Yosemi, the sixth-grade teacher, if her kids are on Ritalin. She looks at me as if I was from another planet. The school doesn't have running water. They haven't had an onsite psychologist in months.

She does what she can to help them, but the problems are overwhelming. Physical and sexual abuse, self-esteem issues, and abandonment are par for the course. A twelve-year old recently knocked on their door to enroll on his own initiative. His junkie mom had never bothered enrolling him. He was illiterate and had heard this was a school for kids like him.

I poke my head into the fifth-grade classroom. I ask the kids to guess where I'm from. When they hear I'm from Maracaibo -- Venezuela's second-largest city -- I ask them if they know what state it's in.

None of them know. I am later told most of them are barely learning to read and write.

I ask Susana, the fourth-grade teacher, about textbooks. She says the mayor's office gave them textbooks last year, but this year they received half that amount. The Mayor's Education Secretary, on tour with me, makes a note, and talks about how the national government has cut the opposition municipality's budget. He promises to do what he can.

The school teaches basic job skills such as electricity, woodwork, sewing, and cooking. I ask Suleima, the cooking teacher, about some of her success stories. She tells me, with obvious pride, about a couple of her students who recently got stable jobs. One works at a bakery, the other at Domino's Pizza.

All over the school, you see signs about basic values: companionship; respect; responsibility; work ethic. One sign reminds kids that your job is only important if you do it well. In the kitchen, another reminds them that the table is where a person's true culture reveals itself, and that they should treat the dinner table with respect.

Public schools are voting centers in Venezuela. When there is an election, the military takes over the school for a few days before, and a few days after.

Maydelin, another of the teachers, tells me that after the last election, they came to work to find that somebody had stolen the entire computer lab. They have yet to raise the money to replace it.

I have a hard time hearing her. Directly above us, eight Sukhoi fighter planes -- recently purchased from the Russians at exorbitant cost -- are practicing for a military parade.

We wonder, in silence, how much the parade is going to cost.

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images