Ugandan radio journalist Arafat Nzito disappeared last week, and human rights observers in Uganda think he is being held by the country’s Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force, a security arm of the Ugandan government.
Nzito, 23, had been working for two months with Radio Simba, a popular FM station known for its political talk shows before those were banned. He left his office for what he thought was a brief meeting with people repeatedly calling him and asking him to meet them in a nearby parking lot; he never returned.
“He was in the newsroom working on a story, so he requested his colleagues, ‘Please don’t tamper with my piece, let me attend to these people, I’ll come back and finish my work,'” said Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, research director and program coordinator of Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ), in a telephone interview.
Instead, Nzito was driven away in a “Toyota double cabin” with tinted windows; four other men were sitting inside, according to witnesses who talked to HRNJ. The men he met with, and between whom he was sandwiched in the car, were dressed in plain clothes.
Ssebaggala told me neither HRNJ, which is investigating the matter, nor Radio Simba knew who the men were or what they were calling about. Radio Simba staff tried reaching Nzito by phone, but he didn’t answer. They began to worry the next day; Nzito didn’t turn up for an editorial meeting, and his sister phoned the station to say she hadn’t seen Nzito for two days.
The motive for the possible kidnapping is unclear. Nzito is a crime reporter with the station who also occasionally covers the country’s opposition party, Ssebaggala said. Nzito’s bosses insisted to Ssebaggala that the cub reporter’s political coverage was fact-based and fair.
HRNJ investigated the disappearance by looking for Nzito in police offices around Kamapala. When that turned nothing up, a delegation from the group met with the head of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), another security agency. CMI insisted it knew nothing about the disappearance and would investigate, according to Ssebaggala, who was at the meeting.
HRNJ later received reports that Nzito is being held by the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force, another security agency. Ssebaggala says he tried to confirm this with CMI, where his contacts were unavailable.
Security agencies in Uganda proliferate; says one Ugandan journalist, “the line between the two” — the terrorism task force and the CMI — “is very thin.”
HRNJ will file papers at the High Court in Kampala tomorrow, compelling the task force to bring Nzito to court and either charge him or free him unconditionally. That can take up to two weeks, Ssebaggala says, though urgent cases are usually prioritized.
Update: My friend Allan Brian Ssenyonga points out that well-known journalist Kalundi Serumaga was arrested in similar fashion last year, after making some controversial political statements on a radio station. He was eventually released — Ssenyonga thinks his Irish passport helped. His father, a famous playwright named Robert Serumaga, was also arrested for being on the wrong side of power — in Serumaga senior’s case, that power was Idi Amin, and Serumaga was never seen again.