Last week, freelance investigative journalist and lawyer Gather Atuhaire won the European Union (EU) Human Rights Defenders Award 2023.
Atuhaire beat her fellow investigative journalist, Solomon Sserwanja, and Richard Lusimbo, a human rights activist, filmmaker and public speaker.
According to the EU, this year’s competition attracted 88 nominees from all over the country, but only three were shortlisted for the accolade. The award is given to individuals in recognition of their significant contributions to human rights over the past year.
It also seeks to give increased visibility to human rights defenders, who, despite the important work they do, may not be so well known nationally and internationally. Atuhaire said winning that award was the most overwhelming and humbling moment of her life.
“I didn’t expect it. I did not know that I had already done enough to deserve such recognition. It was an honour and a sort of uplifting that came at a time when I needed it,” she said.
She said activism is tough. Fighting impunity in this country is hard, and it takes a toll on you.
“You deal with threats, attacks, trolls on social media, unfair treatment, etc., and at the time the award was announced, I was going through a lot of frustration. I won’t lie, but it has re-energised me a bit, and the feeling that my work is not in vain and is valued is a good feeling,” she told The Observer.
Over the past few years, Atuhaire has established herself as a bold and fierce person whose social media activism has shaken powerful institutions and individuals. Atuhaire is passionate about people’s rights, and she never keeps quiet whenever she sees abuse.
Her activism became pronounced at Law Development Centre (LDC) when she challenged its leadership over the students who had failed without even providing their results. She said the lack of avenues to air grievances made her start social media activism.
In 2021, LDC informed her and many of her classmates that they would not graduate after failing some papers. However, LDC did not offer the documentary proof of that. Atuhaire rallied other students and got help from some leaders, and they pushed for some reforms.
At LDC, Atuhaire and other students had a lot of grievances about the way their results were handled, and she led efforts to raise these grievances. Some of them were resolved, and the majority of them graduated in July, 2022.
She also went head-on with the National Water and Sewerage Corperation (NWSC) for overbilling its customers. She was a victim because her bill had increased from Shs 40,000 to Shs 170,000 without any explanation. When she published it on Twitter, she discovered hundreds of people were going through the same thing.
“I fought until my bill and that of many others normalized again. I still see people with issues on social media. They tag me, and I ask NWSC why these issues have not been addressed, and they respond positively these days,” she said.
Born in present-day Sheema district, she went to Ngoma Nungi primary school and Rwengando primary school. She joined Kinoni high School in the present-day Rwampara district and later Allied School, Mbarara, for O and A levels. She joined Makerere University for a journalism course and graduated in January, 2011.
She worked for Endigyito (WEBS FM) and quit in March 2011 to join The Independent Publications. At The Independent, she first published business stories before crossing over to political reporting.
“I remember that within a week of my employment, I got an interview with Keith Muhakanizi. He was then the deputy secretary to the Treasury, but he was more prominent than his boss, Chris Kassami. Then later, I did big stories about the electricity crisis that the country was facing and the big stories from parliament,” she said.
Just like other places of work, Atuhaire faced various challenges, including poor pay. For a long time, she was a freelancer who earned per story. The Independent is a weekly magazine, and the best she could do was publish four stories a month, which would attract between Shs 400,000 and Shs 600,000.
She left The Independent after just over a year and joined the Uganda Radio Network (URN). After two years, she left URN and went back to The Independent because it was a better place for her career growth since at URN her work was not that visible. She received threats and intimidation from people she wrote about, but they were isolated, and not so worrying.
In 2015, she rejoined Makerere University to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. She said juggling work and school was tough. You are talking about work and studies, but there was even motherhood. I had my first child in 2013, and the day I reported to law school, I found out I was pregnant with the second child, and I gave birth two days before the final exams of completing year one.
“For the first exam, I drove with the baby to school and left him in the parking lot with my twin sister to go and do the exam. That was still the toughest period of my life. Even after exams, it was a struggle. The child would be sick when you have coursework to hand in or an exam to sit for, and if the lecturer doesn’t understand, I would have to choose one, and the child, of course, is the priority. But thankfully, I wasn’t at law school longer than I had to. I finished in June 2019 and graduated in January 2020,” she said.
RELATIONSHIP WITH KADAGA
Atuhaire has never met Rebecca Kadaga, but she covered her during the 9th parliament, when she had just become speaker. At that time, she wrote so many stories about her (many negative).
“I wrote that she was leaving all the controversial issues to her deputy, the late Jacob Oulanyah, the ever-increasing budget, parliament, etc. I also talked a lot about her during her campaigns for speaker, both in 2016 and 2021, where I disagreed with her campaign strategies of using the gender card, the tribal card, and every other card at her disposal. But we had never met, and I had never heard from her regarding what I wrote or said on TV. So, I can say we didn’t have any relationships,” she said.
BICKERING WITH THE SPEAKER
“I am not bickering with anyone, much less the speaker. You bicker with someone when you know each other well or have personal issues. Like Kadaga, I don’t know Anita Among. Apart from the time I met her in 2021 to present to her our petition against LDC, I had never met her, and I have never met her again,” she said.
She said, “I do my job of informing the public about what’s going on in parliament, and her people take issue with that, something I have no control over. But I have never said anything personal about Speaker Among, and everything I say is backed up with facts and evidence. I don’t know why anyone would call that bickering.”
Meanwhile, since breaking the story about the Shs 2.5bn purchase of luxury cars for the speaker and her deputy last year, Atuhaire has not gone to parliament.
“But it is not because anyone has blocked me from accessing it. It is because I have no need to go there because I get information without stepping foot there. I will try going there if I have a need to, and I will see if I am blocked,” she said.