Relations between the Uganda People’s Defense Forces and the media have been strained in recent months, after several journalists were beaten by army soldiers while trying to cover a protest. Hoping to improve matters, senior army officers played two friendly football (soccer) matches with members of the media.
It was no ordinary game. Guns and boots filled Phillip Omondi’s football pitch. Most of the spectators were dressed in military fatigues.
The no-frills military police feared by both the public and the media cheered loudly as the match between the military generals and the heads of several media outlets began.
The army generals, dressed in white and blue shirts, were led by the chief of defense forces, General David Muhoozi. The media team was dressed in neon green and gray and led by media house owners Nation Media, New Vision Group and several others.
General Muhoozi said the match was aimed at consolidating and strengthening the relationship with the media given what he called, the various ups and downs in their interactions.
“No, no, no, we don’t apologize for anything. We say we are partners. The other day you scratched me, I scratched your back then. But at the end of the day, we are partners. We are in the same boat. We cannot avoid each other. We are face to face every day. So what better way to strengthen our partnerships than through such lighthearted moments,” he said.
The first match between media managers and army generals ended 3-1 in favor of the media.
A second game between field reporters and a team of captains, colonels and lieutenants ended in another media victory, 3-0.
The media may have been the best team on Friday, but before that they were ruthlessly beaten with batons and sticks by the same army.
The latest encounter took place in February when several journalists were beaten while covering a National Unity Platform march to deliver a petition to the UN human rights office in Kampala. The party was protesting the arrests, abuses and detention of its party members.
Robert Sempala, the Human Rights Network’s national coordinator for journalists, said Friday’s games were a good starting point for better relations.
“They beat us and we are running away. They beat today, we run away again. And we run to nowhere. So we thought we would have a focal point to discuss these issues to build trust. It has to be mutual trust and lay the foundation on which we can build relationships,” he said.
Photojournalist Abubaker Lubowa was among those who walked out of a security press conference on December 28 after the army refused to apologize for beating journalists. He talked about the football game.
“It is a step that we are taking. We’re not saying everything will be fine. But we hope that after that, at least, we will have built a relationship and we will have something in common that unites us,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether the cheers, handshakes and unity displayed on the football field will translate into safe and non-violent days, especially for the media, when the same shoes hit the ground again.