On May 11, 2020, Makerere University police arrested six journalists who were planning to interview students about challenges foreign students face while sheltering in place at the university.
Starting in late March, the Ugandan government imposed measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The measures included the closing of educational institutions, a shelter-in-place order, and restrictions on public transportation and the use of privately owned vehicles. Due to these restrictions, nearly 1,750 Ugandan university students sheltered in place and were unable to travel back to their homes.
A Makerere University student leader invited journalists to attend a press conference regarding the worsening conditions of foreign students sheltering in place at the university residence halls. The student leader reported that university administrators allegedly informed students that they could not provide additional support and resources during the lockdown since the university was closed. As such, international students sheltering in resident halls have reportedly been in need of food relief and other resources.
Six journalists—Sanya Emmanuel Mango, Grace Namubiru, and Godwin Kaiza, all of Record TV; Muyingo Joseph, of Delta TV; Jaliat Namuwaya, of Bukedde TV; and Muhumuza Edward, of NTV—attempted to enter the front gates of Makerere University to interview the students about their living conditions. However, the officer in charge of the Makerere University Police Post arrested the journalists, confiscated their phones and detained them at Wandegeya Police Station. The journalists were released after two hours without any charges brought against them and were told that they cannot enter campus without the explicit permission of university administrators.
The Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda commented that this incident is one of many cases of journalists being targeted and arbitrarily arrested since the start of the lockdown, despite the fact that journalists are considered essential service providers.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about on-campus arrests of journalists by university police in order to restrict the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression— conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Uganda is a party. While university authorities have a responsibility to ensure campus security, they also have an obligation to refrain from restricting nonviolent expressive activity. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.