Kampala, Uganda: When journalist Lawrence Kitatta covered a demonstration in Nakasero at the home of then deputy speaker—now speaker of parliament—Anita Among last year, little did he know that would be the end of his journalism career.
Report by Observer.ug
Before the Nakasero incident, Kitatta, 32, had built an unbroken seven-year career as a dogged political reporter and photographer attached to Vision Group’s Bukedde newspaper.
However, his reporting on the February 22, 2022 demonstration put him on a collision path with security operatives. He was trailed by plainclothes, armed security operatives. The harassment interrupted his career.
On the demonstration day, a security officer attached to the Special Forces Command kicked and pushed him into an oncoming vehicle. He lodged a complaint at Jinja Road police station under the number GEF: 14/2022 and ran several media reports about the assault. He has, however, not received justice to date.
It has now been 10 months since Kitatta quietly fled the country. He is jobless and depressed. He left behind a family; a wife, and a four-year-old child. He thought he would briefly seek refuge in Kenya and return to Uganda. His oppressors seem to have penetrated Kenya and intensified ef- forts to capture him.
“I left Uganda because my life was in danger and I had no protection. These armed men are still after my life, even in my Kenya hideout. I don’t know their motive or whoever is giving them clues,” Kitatta told The Observer.
He added: “I am a mere unemployed journalist [now] with no criminal record, but my unwarranted search continues to scare me. I keep indoors because I don’t know whom to trust now if these men have joined me in Kenya.”
Kitatta said it’s tough staying in Kenya without a job. He makes ends meet through handouts from friends and well-wishers, which he also shares with his family back in Uganda. On December 28, 2022, he narrowly survived being kidnapped by three men along Duruma road in Nairobi city, around Kampala Business Center.
“I had gone to exchange money I had received from my relatives for survival when I noticed three men following me. I cared less until the men joined me inside this forex bureau where most Ugandans normally transact upon arrival in Kenya,” he said.
During a brief conversation with the bureau’s attendant, one of the men asked to be directed to a nearby restaurant for a quick lunch.
“When I walked this man out to share directions to Mukono restaurant, located about 40 meters from the building, he firmly held my hand and I got scared. I asked him why he was holding me like that, but before he could respond, another man joined him, and they dragged me to a standby Uber vehicle,” Kitatta narrated.
“The driver refused to start the vehicle since they had now handcuffed me. He demanded to know if they were security personnel in plain clothes, but I quickly responded that the men were trying to kidnap me. They ordered the driver to drive off, but he insisted on asking for their operational papers, which they failed to show him.”
According to Kitatta, the hesitancy of the three men forced the Uber driver to scream for help as his captors struggled to remove his handcuffs. The anonymous men later disappeared into the nearby buildings. He was able to recognize the face of the first man.
This was a narrow escape from an orchestrated plan to abduct him by security operatives. He has skipped several abduction attempts while in Uganda since he covered the demonstration.
On March 10, 2022, some 12 operatives in plainclothes riding in a numberless drone camped outside the Vision Group offices in the Industrial Area to arrest him. Kitatta explained that the team, dressed in black overalls with hoods, stormed around lunchtime but angrily left toward 4pm.
“On that day, my bosses told me to keep inside the building after one of the men approached the company security officer, asking for my whereabouts. It was the security officer who unknowingly alerted my colleagues to call me outside, and I ended up hiding further. It dawned on me that the hunt had escalated,” he said.
Four days before this raid, plain-clothes men on a numberless sport bike trailed him from the Vision Group offices to Kireka.
Kitatta was riding his motorcycle when he noticed someone riding closer around 7:30pm.
The male rider knocked him off the road around Kyambogo [near the car bonds]. To his surprise, the person stopped briefly, made eye contact, and sped off without apologizing.
“I got back on my bike and found the same person parked by the roadside in Banda. I rode past him to Kireka, then to my sister’s salon, from which I had a clear view of the main Jinja road. Later, the man came riding at breakneck speed as if chasing someone and proceeded to Bweyogerere,” he recalled.
When security operatives hit a dead end, they raided his home, causing mayhem in the neighbourhood. They only found his wife and child and turned the house upside down before making off with his tablet. It’s this raid that gave him the last opportunity to search for help from various entities and individuals [names withheld] to flee the country.
WHY THE UNENDING TRAIL?
While security operatives use anonymous phone calls and messages when following people, this has not been the case with Kitatta, who has faced direct physical attacks. To date, he can’t fathom the motive behind the unending torment by security operatives.
However, before he exited the country, a colleague [names withheld] confided in him that he was “badly wanted” by the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) and other sister security agencies for his close ties with the National Unity Platform (NUP) president, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, alias Bobi Wine.
“The person said security agencies compiled a whole file about me, including videos of me and other journalists in secret meetings with him [Kyagulanyi]. This was all false, although I didn’t want to disclose it to the person, given his close ties with security,” Kitatta said.
“He further said security is upset that some journalists have turned into opposition activists, especially those covering NUP activities.”
At Bukedde, Kitatta was a political reporter, but his editor assigned him to cover Kyagulanyi “wherever he goes without fail.”
Asked whether he had any secret meetings with Kyagulanyi, Kitatta quickly responded: “I have never had any or received a direct phone call from Bobi Wine. For interviews, I had to go through formal channels like other people. I have interacted once with him during a press conference organized at his home in Magere. After the presser, I asked for a one-on-one engagement as tasked by my editor. He accepted the interview, but it was brief.”
When photos of Kitatta being assaulted went viral, Kyagulanyi tweeted: “In a rogue state, no one is spared. Journalists continue to be on the receiving end of torture and brutality. The brutality of Bukedde journalist Lawrence Kitatta by this hooded, armed man must be condemned. That’s why everyone needs to get involved in the struggle for freedom.”
He said he received no personal communication from Kyagulanyi thereafter. The person also revealed that security was interested in questioning him about the motive of the demonstration held in Nakasero last year. Apparently, before the demonstration, the person further added that Among was scheduled to attend the burial of the late lteso cultural leader, Emorimor Augustine Osuban Lemukol, but skipped it following security intelligence.
Kyagulanyi was among the politicians who thronged Abilayep village in Serere for the burial—a function which Kitatta covered and filed stories about.
“This person told me that CMI informed him that by attending the burial, we [the press] wanted to embarrass the speaker at the burial. That is, they [CMI] had received video evidence of us in a strategy meeting, which was all false. When we missed her [Among] in Serere, we organized a demonstration at her home,” Kitatta quoted the person as saying.
He insisted that he covered the demonstration by youth who refer to themselves as NUP torture survivors through a tip-off from a source.
“I was called by a source at 6am. to be at Tweed Towers, Nakasero, by at least 7:30am. The source didn’t divulge details. Still, I informed the deputy editor about the assignment, but I arrived around 8am. only to see the youths demonstrating. I didn’t know that she was staying at Nakasero until security intervened to disperse them and the journalists,” he said.
Kitatta said he wants to return to Uganda, but he has not been accorded the support even from his employers—beyond writing stories as events unfolded—to guarantee his safety.
“Some of my bosses are also biased about whether to help me or not. Initially, they had instructed a company lawyer to open
a case with the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID), but this didn’t take off. The lawyer said he would not disclose what happened between him and my top bosses. My supervisor said the lawyer was barred from filing any case,” he said.
Asked why the swift turn of events, Kitatta said: “I was backstabbed by one of my colleagues before the top bosses. Sadly, the bosses also believed his lies before hearing my side of the story. I stayed helpless until I left the country.”
He added: “I have not received any phone call or email from my bosses asking about my whereabouts. I am in touch with a few work colleagues, but none has ever asked what I am up to.”
Meanwhile, the person who disclosed the security interests had requested that Ki- tatta meet the speaker, which he declined after consulting one of his editors. He said he neither receives assignments nor calls from his bosses, although he still holds the company identity card.
As a freelance writer and photographer with Bukedde, he last received a salary in March 2022. Roughly, he would get about Shs 1.5 million monthly and below Shs 1 million if he didn’t multi-task enough by contributing to Bukedde newspaper, Bukedde radio, TV, and online platforms for New Vision and Bukedde to raise his earnings.
In September 2022, Kitatta travelled back to Kampala. He had spent only five days in the country when a now “genuine friend” alerted him to exit the country soonest or risk being abducted as his hideout had been established.
“I am stuck and don’t know what to do next. In Nairobi, I am not working per se unless friends contact me for photography gigs, which are also few. I want to be free and work for my family because the situation in Nairobi is tough. I am now living in fear after the attempt to kidnap me in Nairobi.”