“Journalism is not terrorism. The state’s charges against Joy Doreen Biira should be dropped without delay,” the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Africa Progamme Coordinator Angela Quintal, has said.
Ms Quintal, who was reacting to the arrest and charging of Kenya Television Network (KTN) journalist and news anchor Joy Doreen Biira, implored the Ugandan authorities to ‘immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against’ her.
Police detained Biira on November 27 after she reported on a deadly battle between police and a traditional monarch’s royal guard, charged her with “abetting terrorism,” and released her pending trial the following day, she and her lawyer told CPJ.
Biira’s lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo, told CPJ that police accused Biira of circulating graphic photos of the aftermath of a battle between security forces and the royal guard of the king of the Rwenzururu Kingdom, a traditional monarch in the Rwenzori region of western Uganda, to a widely subscribed WhatsApp group. According to media reports, 62 people, including 16 security personnel, were killed in the gun battle.
Biira, who is Ugandan but works in Kenya, had been in the area for a traditional wedding ceremony. She posted video of the king’s palace burning to Instagram and wrote about the event on Facebook. Police arrested her alongside four other people, including her husband, who also published images of the palace burning, Biira and Opiya told CPJ.
“It is bad enough that Ugandan authorities desired to censor coverage of a newsworthy event, but the use of anti-terrorism laws to intimidate a journalist is a vast overreach,” said Ms Quintal. Uganda police spokesman Andrew Felix Kaweesi did not immediately return CPJ’s phone calls seeking comment, she adds.
“We have fully cooperated with the police in their investigations and hope that in the end, they will find that all this was a mistake on their part,” Biira told CPJ. “I am sure they will clear our names of the grave and ridiculous charges. My social media postings are public and do not constitute a violation of any law. As a professional and practicing journalist, I believe in the ethics of my profession. In this instant, I believe I held it to the highest possible standard.”
Biira was allowed to return to Kenya yesterday. Her trial is expected to begin on December 8, her lawyer told CPJ. Under Uganda’s Anti-Terrorism Act, the charge of ‘abetting terrorism’ carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.