5 Min Read
* Images show hooded man dropping hammer in car
* Intrigue distracting country from protest issues
By Barry Malone
KAMPALA, May 7 (Reuters) - The camera never lies, except in Uganda. At least, that's the government's position.
An extraordinary row has broken out in the east African country over media photographs and video footage of the arrest of its most popular opposition leader Kizza Besigye last week.
Ministers insist some images are "concoctions". But the claim is drawing derision, particularly from those who witnessed the incident.
The violent arrest provoked riots the following day and there are fears the new dispute could heighten tension over the government's handling of protests about high prices.
"We shall investigate your newspaper and the source of those photographs because we don't believe they are genuine," State Minister for Internal Affairs Matia Kasaija told the independent Daily Monitor newspaper after it published photos of the arrest.
It is not unusual for Besigye, who has now lost three elections to warhorse President Yoweri Museveni, to be arrested. He had already been detained three times in April for leading "walk to work" protests against rising fuel and food prices.
This arrest was different. Men in plainclothes descended on his car and smashed in two windows -- one with a hammer and one with a pistol. They soaked him with pepper spray, dragged him out and unceremoniously hauled him onto a pickup truck.
The episode was watched by several Reuters witnesses among a large crowd of foreign and local journalists -- some with still cameras and others recording video footage.
Despite the wealth of evidence, the government insists that Besigye threatened the police with his own hammer and that members of his entourage fired pepper spray from the car.
"He was handling a hammer, threatening police with the words, 'I will hammer you'," Internal Affairs Minister Kirunda Kivejinja told a news conference the next day as riots over the brutality of the arrest tore through Kampala and other towns.
The media footage revealed a different story.
The Daily Monitor's series of front-page photographs show a hooded man lashing out at one of Besigye's car windows with a hammer, before fumbling and dropping it inside the vehicle.
The pictures show the wide-eyed opposition leader then lowering the window, picking up the hammer and holding it for protection.
"The pictures, which are there for the world to see, represent fantastic journalism done with courage and professionalism," said Daily Monitor Managing Editor Daniel Kalinaki.
"If anyone ought to be investigated, it should be Mr Kasaija and his colleagues for misleading the President and the citizens of this country with misinformation and propaganda," he said.
Reporters at Kivejinja's news conference, many of whom had been only inches from Besigye's car when he was arrested, burst into peals of laughter as the minister read the statement.
But the row is fast losing its funny side.
The government is refusing to back down. Many say days of parliamentary debate about the row are distracting Uganda from dealing with the inflation issues that sparked the protests.
Some journalists who took the images say they have received threatening phone calls.
Many Ugandans share Kalinaki's view that Museveni, in his 25th year in power after defeating Besigye in a disputed February poll, is being fed false information by his officials.
Some ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) MPs told Reuters they were embarrassed by the government line and wanted a national debate on the rising prices and the protests.
"This is a distraction. And I'm tired of looking foolish," said one NRM legislator.
On the streets of Kampala, an opposition stronghold, it is almost impossible to find anyone who believes the official line.
Alan Kasujja, who hosts a breakfast radio show in the city, told Reuters the overwhelming majority of people contacting him about it were losing faith in a government caught in a lie.
"If they are sticking by this hammer story, then I give up," Kasujja said. "To spin a story and to soften it is what is expected by any government. But what you have here is a blatant lie. What happened was there for everyone to see." (Editing by David Clarke and Andrew Heavens)