Released Ugandan journalist says not yet safe

By Linus Atarah

The Ugandan investigative journalist who was abducted and detained last week due to a story he wrote about circumstances surrounding a Finnish man’s death in capital city Kampala says he still fears for his personal safety even after being released from military custody earlier this week.

Charles Etukuri, said he is afraid that the agents of the Ugandan Internal Security Organisations (ISO) might still come for him a second time in order to silence him and take off the pressure on their back to properly investigate circumstance surrounding the Finnish man’s death.

“They are still running around and I fear they might still make a second attempt so I have to very careful about the times I report to and leave from work”, Etukuri said in a telephone interview from his newspaper’s office in Uganda’s capital Kampala.

According to him, he has been asked to report to the office of the ISO on Friday and he is not sure whether they would allow him out because he has been giving interviews since his release.

A Finnish national who had travelled to Uganda on business trip with a former minister of communication, Suvi Lindén was found dead in his hotel room in mysterious circumstances last week. The Ugandan police are investigating the matter as murder.

The death was first reported by Etukuri, an investigative journalist with Uganda’s biggest circulating newspaper, New Vision, who was abducted and detained by the Ugandan security service, ISO after his story was published.

He was held for several days without charge and was only released on Monday. The New Vision newspaper had filed a habeas corpus case with the courts against the detention of Etukuri.

The media freedom campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RFS), among others, had also called for the immediate release of Etukuri last week.

Speaking on a telephone interview on Wednesday after his release, Etukuri said the security agents arrested him because they were interested in how he had managed to get exclusive information about the Finnish businessman’s death.

From his investigations, he had found out the Finnish businessman and his female colleague entered the country with a forged invitation letter from the Director General of Uganda’s Internal Security Service – that information would appear to implicate the security service in the death of the Finnish businessman.

“When the security agencies read the story, they were not happy with the contents that was published because being a government paper, they didn’t expect the newspaper to write about what had happened”, he said, “they were shocked, they had a feeling that we knew much more than the authorities did”.

New Vision was previously wholly state-owned newspaper, but has now been opened to private partnership. The government still owns majority shares.

Journalists in Uganda operate with less than adequate personal safety, according to Etukuri. “We have no rule of law in our country”, said Etukuri. Adding, “what happens here is that they have not reached the level of killing us but we don’t have any safety”, he said.

It is not the first time that a journalist has been arrested in Uganda but what raises concern for Etukuri, and what to him is extreme, is that he was picked up by the military and not by the police – the ISO is part of the military. He was driven around in Kampala blindfolded for one hour, and finally dumbed in a safe house, where he had no access to a phone, his relatives and nobody knew where he was. The law in Uganda mandates that an arrested suspect should be detained in a gazetted place such as a prison or police cell.

Besides that, he said his family was also harassed while he was in detention. The security agents went to his hours “in the wee hours of the morning” and scaled his home fence and asking his wife who was there with their little daughter to be allowed in. They also broke into his car parked at his home.

It is this added dimension of the military apparently “joining the bandwagon in arresting journalists, which indicates that “the plot may be thickening” around journalists’ safety in Uganda, according to Etukuri.