Uganda’s Religious Leaders Decry Unequal Media Access, Police Brutality Ahead of 2021 Poll

Members of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU).

Religious leaders in Uganda have expressed their concerns about unequal access to the media and police brutality as the country prepares for elections early next year.

In a press statement circulated Tuesday, August 25, the religious leaders under their umbrella body, the Inter Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU), call on politicians and the leadership of the country’s Electoral Commission to engage in dialogue on how to run political campaigns.

“As a Council, we are concerned about how regulations and presidential directives are being enforced by the security agencies and indeed the Electoral Commission,” IRCU members say in their statement dated August 13.

They add, “We are witnessing lack of equal access to the media and the police discriminately dispersing crowds and political contenders. There is a lack of consistency and clarity by the Electoral Commission on elections.”

The presidential election in the East African landlocked country is scheduled to be held on a date between January 10 and February 8, 2021, the leadership of the Electoral Commission of Uganda  announced in June.

The commission’s Chairman, Simon Byabakama Mugenyi also announced a ban on campaign rallies and instead urged candidates to campaign via media outlets, a move he said was aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19.

The move to ban campaign rallies is seen by the civil society as a strategy by the government to gain undue advantage over opposition candidates who have previously complained of restricted access to state-owned media, which reportedly favors the ruling party. 

Majority of the country’s private media is allegedly owned by individuals loyal to the governing party, thus making it hard for the opposition candidates to get fair coverage.

The country’s incumbent President, Yoweri Museveni who has been in power since 1986 has not declared his candidacy, though his party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), has endorsed him as the party’s flag bearer.

If he vies, President Museveni will be competing against popular musician and parliamentarian, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu popularly known as Bobi Wine, who has teamed up with veteran opposition leader, Kizza Besigye. 

In their collective statement, the religious leaders who include members of the Uganda Episcopal Conference (UEC) call upon political actors and electoral managers in the country to “engage in a win-win dialogue on how to access media space equitably; how to enforce the regulations uniformly and agree on the mode of campaigns.”

In their initiative dubbed “working together for peaceful, credible free and fair elections 2020/21,” the members of IRCU who represent seven religious bodies express their willingness to work with various stakeholders to address the existing challenges that they say are undermining the growth of the country’s democracy.

The challenges, they say, include the declining trend in respect for freedom of expression, the narrowing civic and political space; and concerns about the increasing monetization of elections.

They are also concerned about violence in elections; persistent challenges of limited participation of women, youth and People With Disabilities (PWDs) in elections; the lack of equal access to media and the gross apathy among the electorate.

In the four-page statement obtained by ACI Africa, the religious leaders also announce the “second edition of the presidential and constituency candidates’ debates” on a date they say “shall be announced as soon as the presidential and parliamentary campaigns begin.”

“The candidates’ debates are a neutral dignified forum or platform where candidates or political leaders are given the opportunity to sell their agenda to the electorate and in the case of Uganda, commit themselves to a fair, peaceful and credible election,” the religious leaders say.

The debates, they note, “promote issue-based discussions among candidates and citizens.”

With the support of the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP), IRCU and The Elder’s Forum (TEFU) organized the “first ever” presidential candidates’ debates ahead of the 2016 general elections.

“The country was excited about these debates and have since encouraged us to institutionalize candidates’ debates in our body politic,” the religious leaders say.

In their collective statement, the religious leaders condemn the August 9 demolition of St. Peter’s Church of Uganda, Ndeeba, terming the move as a “blasphemy” and “manifestation of the highest level of moral decay in our country.”

“We appeal to everybody to remain hopeful and intercede for our nation. Let us continue adhering to the Ministry of Health guidelines and presidential directives put in place to curb the spread of COVID 19. COVID is real!” they conclude.

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ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
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