CBC News journalists deported from Uganda, despite having press credentials

A CBC News crew was deported from Uganda this weekend despite following protocols laid out for foreign journalists entering the country. The deportation happened about a month before the country's elections, which critics say won't be free or fair.

Country ranked low on world press freedom index, government accused of media suppression

A scan of the official press accreditation cards issued to the CBC News crew by the Media Council of Uganda. (CBC)

A CBC News crew was deported from Uganda this weekend despite following protocols laid out for foreign journalists entering the country.

The deportation, which occurred on Friday, happened about a month before the country's elections. Opposition parties and election observers have expressed concerns the vote won't be free or fair.

Uganda is due to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Jan. 14. Incumbent President Yoweri Museveni is seeking to extend his 34 year-rule — but has been accused of muzzling the media and has clamped down on political opponents.

"The expulsion of a foreign news crew in the early days of an election campaign that's already been marred by government security forces opening fire on opposition protests is extremely ominous," said CBC News foreign correspondent Margaret Evans, who was one of three CBC News journalists deported.

Evans, producer Lily Martin and videographer Jean-François Bisson landed in the country on Nov. 21 to do a series of reports from both rural and urban areas, mainly focusing on issues relating to the coronavirus pandemic.

"Before entering the country, we applied for — and were issued with — accreditation from the Media Council of Uganda," Evans said, noting they also sought advice from the Ugandan High Commission in London on proper visa requirements prior to the trip.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

"They advised that we enter Uganda on an 'ordinary,' or tourist, visa. This is a long-established practice for foreign journalists."

CBC News videographer Jean-François Bisson, left, correspondent Margaret Evans, centre, and producer Lily Martin pose in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

Evans said five government agents arrived at their hotel in Kampala on Thursday.

"They said we were breaking the law by having arrived in the country on a tourist visa and then performing 'business activities,'" Evans said. "We, of course, said that made no sense given that we had openly applied for media credentials."

Hotel security intervened after the CBC News crew refused to go to an undisclosed address with the five officials, who also wanted to confiscate their passports. Evans said she then went to her room to call and ask CBC's London bureau manager to contact the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi — which is also responsible for Uganda.

"We agreed with the man who had identified himself as being with the police that we would present ourselves at the Ministry of the Interior the next day," Evans said.

Evans, left, and Bisson are pictured aboard a flight between Entebbe and Kisoro while on assignment in Uganda. (Lily Martin/CBC)

The CBC News crew arrived at the ministry at 9 a.m. local time on Friday, along with Canada's honorary vice-consul in Uganda. Evans said they were held for several hours before being told they were being deported. They were then allowed to return to their hotel under armed guard to pack before being driven to the airport in Entebbe for an overnight flight to Amsterdam, she said.

"The vice-consul engaged on our behalf, but it was pretty clear it had been decided the day before when they sent five people to our hotel," Evans said.

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada told CBC News on Sunday that they are aware of the situation. 

"Consular officials were in contact with local authorities in Uganda to gather information, and Canadian officials provided consular services to the affected individuals," spokesperson Angela Savard wrote in an email, adding that no further information could be disclosed due to Privacy Act provisions.

"Canada will continue to advocate for the protection of media freedom around the world."

A spokesperson from the Ugandan government communications department said on Twitter the government "reserves the right to admit foreign persons including journalists."

The same spokesperson, Ofwono Opondo P'Odel, also sent a pair of statements to CBC News in response.

"Every visa, work permit and media accreditation have terms and conditions, which can be revoked by the Uganda authority if violation occurs," he said in the first statement.

In a follow-up statement, P'Odel said the journalists "applied for a tourist visa, instead they were found working without work permit. Consequent they [were] removed and advised to apply for permit and can be allowed to return."

As stated by Evans, the trio had been advised to apply for tourist visas upon entering.

Violent protests following arrest of opposition candidate

Intimidation and violence against media is a regular occurrence in Uganda, according to Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organization that advocates for freedom of information. In the organization's press freedom index for 2020, Uganda ranked 125th out of 180 countries.

Evans said Museveni's government has been accused of suppressing Ugandan journalists "through a series of arbitrary arrests and attacks — especially against those covering the campaign of opposition candidate Bobi Wine, who has himself been jailed by the government on more than one occasion."

"Those journalists don't have the support we in Canada are fortunate enough to have in circumstances like these," she said.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, left, is looking to extend his 34-year rule but is facing opposition from candidate Bobi Wine. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters, James Akena/Reuters)

Wine, a member of parliament and a musician who has emerged as a serious threat to a sixth term for Museveni, was released on bail on Nov. 20 after he was charged with holding rallies likely to spread COVID-19. New York-based Human Rights Watch said authorities were "weaponizing" COVID-19 to suppress the opposition ahead of elections.

"This is just the beginning of the campaign season," Oryem Nyeko, the group's Africa researcher, said on Nov. 20. "It seems to be a sign of things to come."

Protests erupted in the wake of Wine's arrest, which, according to Reuters, led to at least 37 deaths. Violence snowballed as authorities deployed the military across Kampala and surrounding areas to help police forces disperse protesters they accuse of rioting and looting. Police said they used live bullets, tear gas and water cannon and arrested nearly 600 people.

With files from Reuters