Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Reporting Linked to Progress in LRA Suspect Case

IWPR articles said to have given impetus to preparations for trial of suspected rebel.
By Bill Oketch

IWPR’s coverage of Thomas Kwoyelo, an alleged Ugandan rebel commander who was held for more than a year in Gulu jail without charge, played a part in expediting his transfer to Kampala to face trial on war crimes charges, according to a prospective parliamentary candidate.

Kwoyelo’s transfer at the beginning of September to the war crimes division of the High Court came two months after IWPR interviewed the chief public prosecutor Richard Butera about the case, during which he pledged that steps were being taken to send the suspect for trial in Kampala.

“The director of the public prosecution said that Kwoyelo’s case would be referred, but [if] IWPR did not report on this then the suspected war criminal could still be in Gulu jail,” said Lucy Ajok, a coordinator with the NGO Move On Referral, who will stand as a candidate for the opposition Uganda People’s Congress, UPC, in next year’s general election.

Kwoyelo, who is thought to have been the fourth-in-command in the Lord’s Resistence Army, LRA, was captured on March 2, 2009, in Ukwa, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC. He is the highest-ranking LRA commander to so far be apprehended.

Kwoyelo was taken to Gulu central prison, but could not be tried there, since local courts have no jurisdiction over war criminals.

It was only once the war crimes division of the High Court was formally established that Kwoyelo could be transferred to stand trial. He faces 12 counts of kidnap with intent to murder.

IWPR has been closely following the case since Kwoyelo was first arrested, and has so far produced four articles on developments.

“To some extent [IWPR’s coverage of] the story did put pressure on the government to refer Kwoyelo’s case to Kampala,” Ajok said.

James Obot, the chairman of Justice and Peace Commission in Lango, applauded IWPR’s reporting of the Kwoyelo case, saying that it filled an important gap in media coverage.

Obot added that, while Uganda’s national newspapers are preoccupied with reporting on the country’s politics, IWPR provided a valuable service by following up on what is happening with the LRA.

“The LRA war has affected everyone,” he said. “We need media [like IWPR] to continue updating us on the LRA situation. I hope that IWPR will follow up on Kwoyelo’s hearings from day one up to the end.”

Obot said that, even though northern Uganda is now peaceful, victims of the civil war, which spanned two decades, still want to know about the LRA.

A worker for the Centre for Victims of Torture in northern Uganda, who asked to remain anonymous, said that good journalism can help to bring justice to both victims and perpetrators. But he criticised the inherent one-sided bias that often appears in the Ugandan media.

“If they are reporting about [what the LRA did], they are very free, but if they are reporting about [what the government did], then their hands are tied,” he said.

He claims that a lot of information around the insurgency has been concealed by journalists, who fear that they might be jailed if they write negatively about the authorities.

These views are shared by Dan Okello, a UPC leader in the Lira district of northern Uganda, who says that IWPR helps present a much fairer overview of the situation.

“IWPR publishes our voices the way they get it,” he said. “If I send a text to a media house in Uganda, they cut out the portion that exposes the negative part the government has done and end up distorting the facts.”

Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained reporter.