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In one of the most bizarre attacks on media freedom, police descended on certain news organizations in Uganda and closed them down for days because of publishing claims about divisions in the military. The officers’ action displayed lack of professionalism

A female police officer was almost undressed as she battled a female journalist during a demonstration over the closure of the Daily Monitor and other media houses in Kampala, Uganda, recently. For a moment, the officer’s male colleagues looked on as if to let the two ladies from opposite jurisdictions to sort themselves out! Sooner than later the entire scene turned chaotic as more journalists were clobbered and others manhandled like criminals. But, when all this drama is being acted out live in front of TV Cameras, what does it say about the police as an authority in public order management?

For starters, the uniform of a police officer in any normal circumstances ought to be a symbol of respect and authority that no one ought to tamper with; and an officer’s directive should be enough to cause the directed to heed. What was witnessed on at the Monitor offices and possibly on many other incidents before, are scuffles and fights and exchange of fists between civilians and men in uniform. What are these battles all about? Where did the authority of a police officer disappear to that today he or she should be the target of kicks and slaps from the citizens?

I think the events we are witnessing speak volumes of the mentality of the current police force, which appears bent towards confrontation rather than civilized mode of operation. At the slightest provocation from unarmed ordinary citizens, we are witnessing police unleash tear gas canisters, shooting in the air and at times at protestors, kicking, pulling and shoving. I do not think these are the kinds of scenes that should be expected in a civilized society like Uganda aspires to be. The Inspector General of Police has a lot of work to do in as far as actual professionalization of the Police is concerned-and this has so much to do with his senior and junior commanders and how they call their men into action.

Besides, I do not think that the police needed to deploy battalions at the Daily Monitor offices if the intention was to have it closed down. In a state where institutions are functional, the Inspector General of Police only needed to write a notice to the Monitor management informing them of his intentions or he could have worked through the Media Council or the Communications Commission and the company’s operations would have been halted for a specified period. A few officers would then be deployed to ensure compliance. However, what happened was that the police was unnecessarily exercising high handedness, and in the end caused undue tensions and sending very negative signals to the entire media fraternity. One can only imagine how the tanks and tear gas deployed at the gates of the affected media houses were supposed to be interpreted.

Of course one may say that the police are being provoked into action. Granted they are, but being duty bearers, they ought to set an amiable stage for the rights holders to operate. I do not envisage journalists holding pens, note books and cameras overrunning police officers armed with all the tools of coercion you can think of. All that is desired is to create an enabling environment for the protestors to vent their concerns. After all, since the President directed that police should capture a recording of all demonstration scenes, it should not be very difficult to identify the trouble causer.

At the end of the day, I think that confrontation is not going to end the current standoff. The question that we must all answer is: What if the letter in question is not found, will the police keep guard of the media houses forever? In the interest of maintaining minimum sanity in the whole situation, it’s imperative that amicable means of resolving the matter are explored-this will not necessarily be in the interest of the affected media houses alone, but will be for the benefit of the entire media fraternity and will also save the face of Uganda as a country, which is currently seen by the international community as the latest “bad boy” in terms of violation of media freedom.

While it is true that freedom of the media is not necessarily meant to be absolute, especially if there’s really a genuine concern to be addressed, however, the current ‘flexing of muscles’ and show of power between the two institutions on the conflict divide is overly undesirable. In any case, at the end of the day, it appears to me as if the police is fighting the wrong enemy considering that the author of the controversial dossier in question, has since eased out of the country. It’s on him that the guns ought to be turned, and not the messengers. The Banyankole have a saying that, “Agamba akabi tiwe aba akaresire”-meaning that he who predicts danger, is not necessarily the cause of it”.