My experience at the hands of the law

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Politics block

As is now public knowledge, in late July I was summoned – not arrested – by the Uganda Police to the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for interrogation. This was over certain material I had published regarding the bomb blasts in Kampala on the night of July 11, 2010 in which 76 people died and many more were injured.

I have run a news blog called the Uganda Record (ugandarecord.co.ug) since July 2009 and the day after the bombings, Monday July 12, I, like the rest of the national and international media, tried to make sense of the tragic events.

I took the angle that while all eyes on July 12 were focused on the Somali militant group Al-Shabab, I could not rule out the possibility that this could have been the work of the Ugandan government, as a cynical political action to alter the hand of United States foreign policy or even act as a boost for President Yoweri Museveni ahead of the 2011 general election.

These were serious allegations to make against the Uganda government, but I continued to make them and did not once change my position on my belief, even after Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attacks.

I was summoned on July 22 to the CID headquarters at Kibuli in Kampala and appeared there on July 26. On July 27, I appeared at Kiira Road Police Station in Kampala for a session of interrogation that lasted about seven hours.

I had been charged with sedition. Even though the law on sedition was struck off Uganda’s penal code by the Constitutional Court on August 25, I continued to report to Kiira Road Police Station where I had been released on police bond since July.

So far, though, I have been treated well throughout by the police. My question is whether I am receiving this even-handed treatment by the police because I am supposed to be some sort of media and social “celeb” or this is the way the police treats all suspects everywhere in the country.

After all, this same police that has often harassed and tear gassed prominent opposition leaders like Dr. Kiiza Besigye and others. Suspects and others in detention in many parts of Uganda are frequently reported as being roughed up and mistreated in all sorts of ways.

What struck me the most, something I have noted for several years now, is the fact that in Uganda (and probably in many other developing countries around the world) the distinction between a government or regime in power and the state has never been made and understood.

When a government or ruling junta comes to power, it becomes the state. All the machinery of the state — the entity that is supposed to outlive governments that come and go — is put at the disposal of the ruling government.

To insult, threaten, oppose or ridicule that government in power is viewed the same as to insult, threaten, oppose or ridicule the state itself.

During my interrogation and at various stages of my dealings with the police, I noticed police officers shake their heads in disbelief that I could claim that the Museveni government could have planted the bombs in Kampala or been responsible for other covert attacks on its own people.

The thinking was one of “How can Museveni do this?” rather than “How can a government do this to its own people?”

The other striking thing for me has been the police and law-enforcement agencies’ inability to understand the investigative and sensitive political reporting done by the media.

The police often view the media as a public nuisance, as an irresponsible section of society out to cause trouble and divide the country. This is the frame of mind with which the police and the intelligence services bring when handling media cases.

As I explained to the CID at Kibuli, the only difference between what the media and what the police do is that while it is the role of the police to contain public unrest and the possibility of chaos, it is the work of the media to investigate and amplify crimes and injustices in society and to ask the tough questions.

Both of these task are, in their own distinct and perhaps contradicting way, an example of Ugandans performing their patriotic duty.

By Timothy Kalyegira