KAMPALA (Reuters) - Authorities in Uganda have stepped up harassment and intimidation of independent journalists in the run-up to this month's election as President Yoweri Museveni seeks to extend his 30-year rule, a press freedom campaigner said on Tuesday.
Robert Ssempala, national coordinator for Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, (HRNJ-U), told Reuters the government was applying special pressure on journalists in rural areas on which Museveni, 71, depends for much of his support.
Museveni, one of Africa's longest-serving rulers, is running against veteran opposition figure Kizza Besigye and former prime minister Amama Mbabazi on Feb. 18 in what analysts say could be his toughest challenge.
His critics have long accused him of employing tactics including vote-rigging, tight control of the press and violence by the security agencies to secure electoral victories. The government denies these charges.
"I see an escalation of attacks and intimidation, harassment of ... free, independent and critical media. It's about political survival," Ssempala said in an interview.
On Saturday police in the northeast of the country detained the BBC's Uganda correspondent Catherine Byaruhanga, together with a cameraman and an interpreter, after they were found reporting on a decaying government hospital.
The hospital had come under the national spotlight after a visit by Besigye in December helped expose its crumbling state.
The BBC team was threatened with spending a night in jail unless they agreed to delete their footage. They refused and were released after four hours at a police station without any charges or recording a statement, Byaruhanga said.
The government rebuffed the charge that it was targeting journalists.
"These are mostly isolated incidents of some policemen. They do not reflect government intention or motive," deputy government spokesman Shaban Bantariza said. He added that the perpetrators of some attacks on media personnel had been punished.
Ssempala said HRNJ-U, which has 12 monitors in different parts of the country, had documented incidents of radio journalists being sacked or given warnings in apparent retribution for hosting opposition figures.
Others came under various forms of pressure from government officials, including threatening calls, Ssempala said.
In July last year, three journalists were sacked at a radio station owned by a ruling party lawmaker shortly after hosting Besigye in a talkshow.
Last month, a popular radio station in southwestern Uganda was shut down by a state regulator days after it hosted Mbabazi.
"Up-country media has fallen victim more than the urban media houses," Ssempala said. "The president's political lifeline is entirely based on the rural poor population ... so it's about ring-fencing some people from being accessed by the opposition."
Since the early 1990s, when the government relaxed media ownership regulations, the industry has seen an explosion of private broadcasters and newspapers.
Officials initially allowed them to operate with a relatively free hand but analysts say the government has grown increasingly intolerant of critical media, including foreign journalists.
"I see the situation getting worse ... with a lot more physical attacks in the coming days," Ssempala said.
In a report entitled "Keep the People Uninformed: Pre-Election Threats to Free Expression and Association in Uganda", U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said last month that both journalists and activists were being intimidated in the run-up to the vote.
Editing by George Obulutsa and Mark Trevelyan