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As Uganda targets a pop star rival, media under pressure

May 18, 2019
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FILE - In this Thursday, May 2, 2019 file photo, reporters hold up their voice recorders as Ugandan pop star and opposition figure Bobi Wine, whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, greets his followers as he arrives home after being released from prison on bail in Kampala, Uganda. As authorities attempt to contain Wine's political rise, journalists are facing painful pressure and in early May 2019 a government regulator ordered the suspension of journalists at 13 radio and TV stations in apparent response to their coverage of him. (AP Photo/Ronald Kabuubi, File)

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Until recently the Ugandan pop star and opposition figure known as Bobi Wine could count on news crews trailing him. As his popularity grew in the past year, his activities were increasingly covered live by broadcasters satisfying public interest in his anti-government movement known as People Power.

Now that has changed.

As authorities attempt to contain the political rise of Wine, whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, journalists face painful pressure in a country where the longtime president has a firm grip on power.

Earlier this month a government regulator ordered the suspension of journalists at 13 radio and TV stations in apparent response to their coverage of Wine. The Uganda Communications Commission accused them of carrying “extremist or anarchic messages.” One journalists’ group called the directive “madness.” The local association of broadcasters indicated it would not comply, asserting press freedom.

The directive is the latest step in what appears to be a multi-pronged strategy to blunt the threat posed by Wine, who opposes President Yoweri Museveni and has suggested he could run for president in 2021.

Police have prevented Wine from holding concerts in recent months, saying their objective is to maintain public order. When he said he would walk to the police chief’s office to file a complaint earlier this month, he was put under house arrest for days.

“The state is tightening every avenue,” said Joel Ssenyonyi, a spokesman for Wine. “But we are going to keep engaging with the people whenever an opportunity is made available.”

In his trademark red beret, Wine has urged young people to throw the old guard out of power in rallies that have transformed him from a popular entertainer to a national political figure. He has thrived on public anger against official corruption and Museveni’s long rule.

But Wine faces a number of charges that could keep him off the streets. In addition to treason charges over his alleged role in an incident last year in which the president’s convoy was pelted with stones, he also is charged with disobeying lawful orders when he led a street protest last year against a tax on social media.

One condition of his bail is that he stays away from what a magistrate called unlawful demonstrations.

Museveni, in power since 1986, in an open letter earlier this month insisted that political assemblies in the capital, Kampala, must be “for a legitimate reason.”

Ugandan authorities have long been wary of the potential of protests to sweep the regime out of power, and broadcasters who present live coverage are caught in the crosshairs. The communications commission in 2011 threatened to revoke broadcasters’ licenses during a protest movement led by opposition leader Kizza Besigye.

Wine and Besigye recently made peace, fueling talk of a united front against Museveni, who has never faced a single opposition candidate in an election.

Wine and Besigye now want to make this term the last one for the 74-year-old Museveni, who could rule until the 2030s following recent constitutional changes to remove an age limit from the presidency.

There is rising anger among many Ugandans who oppose Museveni’s efforts to prolong his stay in office in a country that has never witnessed a peaceful transfer of power.

Anti-government demonstrators often face beatings, tear gas and gunfire. Increasingly, journalists are not safe. In August a Reuters photojournalist was wounded when soldiers beat him as he covered a protest in Kampala against Wine’s detention.

Ronald Kabuye, a spokesman for the Uganda Journalists Association, told The Associated Press that his group would seek court orders restraining the communications communication from interfering in their work.

“They are trying to intimidate journalists” ahead of presidential elections in 2021, he said. “The first avenue is to fight in court.”

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