RELATIONS between the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces and the media have been strained in recent months, after several journalists were beaten by army troops while trying to cover a demonstration. In hopes of improving matters, top army officers played two friendly football (soccer) matches with members of the media.
This was no ordinary match. Guns and boots filled the Phillip Omondi football grounds. Most of the spectators were dressed in army fatigues.
The no-nonsense military police feared by both the public and media cheered loudly as the match between military generals and the heads of several media outlets kicked off.
The army generals, decked out in white and blue shirts, were led by the chief of defence forces, General David Muhoozi. The media team was dressed in neon green and grey and led by owners of media houses Nation Media, the New Vision Group, and several others.
General Muhoozi says the match was meant to consolidate and strengthen the relationship with the media given what he called, the various highs and lows in their interactions.
‘No, no, no, we are not apologizing for anything. We are saying that we are partners. The other day you scratched me, I scratched your back, so. But bottom line we are partners. We are in this together. We can’t avoid each other. We are in each other’s faces every day. So, what better way to strengthen our partnerships, than through such light moments,’ he said.
The first match between media managers and army generals ended 3-1 in favour of the media.
A second match between field reporters and a team of captains, colonels and lieutenants ended with the media side winning again, 3-0.
The media may have been the better team Friday, but previously have been mercilessly beaten with batons and sticks by the same army.
The last encounter was in February when several journalists were beaten as they covered a march by the National Unity Platform to deliver a petition to the UN human rights office in Kampala. The party was protesting arrests, abuses and detention of their party members.
Robert Sempala, the national coordinator of the Human Rights Network for Journalists, says Friday’s matches were a good starting point for better relations.
‘They have been beating us and we are running away. They beat today we run away again. And we are running to nowhere. So, we thought we would have a convergence point to talk these issues out to build trust. That must be mutual trust and to lay a foundation upon which we can relate,’ he said.
Photojournalist Abubaker Lubowa was among those who walked out of a security press conference on December 28 after the army declined to apologise for beatings of journalists. He spoke about the football match.
‘It’s a step that we are taking. We are not saying that all is going to be well. But we are hopeful that after this, at least, we would have built some relationship, and we will have something in common that unites us,’ he said.
It is yet to be seen, if the cheers, handshakes and unity displayed on the football ground will translate into safe and non-violent days ahead, especially for the media, when the same boots hit the ground again.