- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

KAMPALA, Uganda — Uganda’s decision to shut down a local radio station and charge a leading journalist with sedition has caused alarm in the country once lauded as an African “success story.”

Both moves are tied to the intense coverage in the Ugandan press of the July 30 helicopter crash that killed Sudanese First Vice President John Garang.

The helicopter belonged to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and it was flying Mr. Garang to southern Sudan from western Uganda.

During his Aug. 10 talk show on KFM radio, part of the independent Monitor Publications, journalist Andrew Mwenda blamed the government for the crash.

“I would say the government of Uganda, out of incompetence, led to or caused the death of John Garang,” he said.

That enraged Mr. Museveni, who, earlier that day, threatened to close any newspapers that interfered with regional security if they did not stop immediately.

He cited the Daily Monitor, where Mr. Mwenda is political editor, as one of the three offending newspapers, and he attacked Mr. Mwenda directly.

“I have been seeing this young boy, Mwenda, writing about Rwanda, writing about Sudan, writing about [the Ugandan army]. He must stop. Completely,” Mr. Museveni said.

The president himself had fueled speculation earlier when he told the southern Sudanese that there could have been an “external factor” to the helicopter crash.

The day after the talk show, the Ugandan Broadcasting Council closed KFM radio. Mr. Mwenda, 33, spent the next weekend in jail before getting out on bail. He is charged with sedition, a crime that carries a maximum five-year jail sentence or a $27 fine.

The government says it is committed to press freedoms granted under Mr. Museveni’s two-decade rule and points to the proliferation of radio stations and newspapers. But few journalists trust its intentions.

“It is becoming increasingly antagonistic,” said Peter Mwesige, the Daily Monitor’s executive editor. “The biggest worry is that this is coming at a time when the country is in political transition to multiparty elections.”

The elections scheduled for March 2006 will be the first ones based on party lines since 1980. Analysts forecast a fierce battle because Mr. Museveni has amended the country’s 10-year-old constitution to lift presidential term limits. The president hasn’t revealed his plans, but his critics accuse him of wanting a life presidency.

Mr. Museveni’s supporters already have seized on reporting of the helicopter crash, some of it quite sensational, to remind the press of its responsibilities.

“Journalists are reminded that even when facts may be true, reporting must be informed by an imperative to preserve national interests,” said Nsaba Buturo, a government spokesman. The government will take on “whoever will seek to jeopardize Uganda’s interests in the name of freedom or human rights.”

Adolf Mbaine, a teacher in the mass-communication department at Makerere University, said: “When the government’s under pressure, it also puts the press under pressure.”

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