After clobbering by Museveni’s SFC goons, photojournalist Akena is now confined to a wheelchair
By Moses Ssejjoba
Award-winning Ugandan photojournalist James Akena is now confined to a wheelchair after months battling with excruciating pain inflicted on him by troops of the Special Forces Command (SFC). This is a military outfit that normally guards President Yoweri Museveni, but has recently been active in clamping down on opposition activists and journalists.
The day of August 20, last year started as a normal working one for the celebrated photographer. His assignment was to cover protests in Kampala staged by Ugandans over the unlawful detention of popular legislator, Robert Kyagulanyi, best known as Bobi Wine. The peaceful protests were staged by the movement and answered by hundreds of thousands of Ugandans disenfranchised by the excesses of Museveni’s 35-years of misrule.
Most particularly, the protests were staged against the Museveni regime that had days before abducted Kyagulanyi from Arua, having beaten him close to death. This followed the highly polarized by-elections for the Arua Municipality parliamentary seat, which Kassiano Wadri, a candidate backed by Kyaguranyi, won.
Badly beaten Kyagulanyi was denied medical attention even after he was brought to Kampala, hence the protests that spread very fast within Kampala calling for his release. The protests quickly turned bloody as repression by the security forces kicked into high gear. But the indefatigable protesters were determined to have their voices heard.
Akena and a few of his colleagues did their job “with exceptional courage”, according to eyewitnesses, showing to the world how SFC – which had by now taken over from Police – was brutalizing people. Little did Akena know that the same brutality would soon be meted out on him.
Known for his prolific role in bringing to global attention the suffering of Ugandans in the northern part of the country for over 20 years, Akena was simply specifically targetted. A video clip emerged of him being rounded up by a mob of SFC soldiers.
They were clobbering him like there was no tomorrow. They were using sticks and raining kicks and fisticuffs on him as he knelt on the ground pleading for mercy. He held his hands up as his cameras laid down, a gesture of complete surrender. The SFC guys only got rougher.
The violence was a harrowing thing continued to watch. As the fellows beat him to within an inch of his life they also destroyed his cameras. They then shoved Akena into a police patrol car, Panda Gari, and drove off with the journalist, later dumping him at Kampala Central Police Station.
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They kept him in detention for days even as he was in excruciating pain, his condition demanding immediate treatment. They only released after international calls of outrage grew, for him to be set free.
Among those that protested his mistreatment at the time was the International Foreign Correspondents’ Association and the Uganda Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ-Uganda). “I am in total pain, I have two of my fingers fractured, three big swellings at the back of my head!” Akena said.
“They were seriously targeting the head. I don’t know why all this terror. My camera is gone, I don’t know if I will get it back again,” the journalist said after he was released.
It was not just Akena to face the wrath of the SFC goon squads. Journalists Ronald Galiwango and Juma Kirya of NTV, Julius Muhumuza of Dream TV and Alfred Ocwol of the Observer were among those that got a beating by SFC and Police.
Now after slightly over a year, Akena is in a wheelchair, unable to do the work for which he was so passionate about, and that supported him and his family.
“Mr. Akena was brutally clobbered by the military. By men wearing our uniform and bearing our national flag! His pleas that he was only a journalist doing his job landed on deaf ears as he was flogged by men whom we pay to protect us!” MP Kyagulanyi said in a statement released last Saturday morning.
According to Kyagulanyi, it was also despicable that no one has ever been brought to account for this grotesque act. “To see him now confined to a wheelchair is heart-wrenching. More than a year later, not a single person has been brought to account for this criminal act,” said the legislator.
He added: “We must end the wanton abuse of authority and restore the respect for human rights in our country. Journalism is not a crime!”
Akena has since taken the matter to courts of law but over a year later, he is yet to see justice done. Analysts who spoke to this website intimated that the clampdown on journalists will only get worse as the country heads into the general elections slated for 2021.
“With the growing global attention the Museveni regime’s brutality is attracting, the only way to try and contain this is to prevent journalists from covering these excesses, so attacks on journalists will only get worse,” said a media analyst. “Even with the prohibitive laws against social media by this regime, people still get a way of documenting these excesses using their phones,” he concluded on a hopeful note.