The Shrinking Press Freedom in Uganda

Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) has for years regarded police as the most perpetrator of rights violation of all government institutions and one cannot be surprised by the police and media regulatory agencies for violations of press freedom.

In principle, if not in practice, the laws and regulations governing the media and journalism in Uganda hinge on article 29 (1) (a) of the constitution, which provides that “Every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media.

Police officer tightly squeezes the neck of a journalist Photo by Katumba Badru

When it is not the law, the state has used some fairly crude methods. it should be remembered that In April 2007, for example, the president met media owners and editors at State House, the seat of the presidency. He accused them of granting his opponents room to abuse him. After reminding them of existing laws, an attendee said, he warned: “I am going to shut down your radios.” After the meeting, some radio owners told their producers not to allow certain individuals to appear on their political talk shows any longer.

Its no surprise that history always repeats its self and this time around telecommunications regulator, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has ordered for the immediate suspension of 39 producers, heads of programming and heads of news.

In separate letters sent to the different media houses by UCC executive director Godfrey Mutabazi, UCC claims it has observed misrepresentations information, views, facts and events in a manner likely to mislead or cause alarm to the public during live broadcasts and main news bulletins.

According to the World Press Freedom Index 2019,Uganda is ranked 125 out of the 180 ranked countries, dropping eight places from 117 in 2018 owing to persistent attacks on journalists by security forces and other authorities.The press freedom map, which is distributed in print and digital versions, offers a visual overview of the situation in each country in the Index. The color categories are assigned as follows: good (white), fairly good (yellow), problematic (orange), bad (red) and very bad (black).

A sceenshot of the World Press Freedom map according to the World Press Freedom Index 2019

In a statement dated 3rd May by UHRC, journalists in Uganda have faced some challenges as they exercise their right to seek, receive and impart information including reports of some journalists being subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, arbitrary deprivation of property and unlawful arrests sometimes including instances of charges under laws that courts have declared to be inconsistent with the Constitution.

There have also been reports of journalists being denied access to news scenes and their equipment being confiscated, damaged or destroyed, as well as operating under poor working conditions with no safety and protection gear; lack of bullet proof kits health and life insurance and in some instances lack identity cards. UHRC has also noted with concern the growing incidence of low professionalism among media practitioners which has in some cases led to irresponsible, inaccurate and unbalanced media reports that have had the potential to excite and inflame rather than inform.
New Vision’s  Charles Etukuri and veteran scribe Isaac Bakka are the best examples.

Following a meeting between Uganda communications commission (UCC) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) , it was agreed upon that the initially suspended 39 workers from the television and radio broadcasters step aside for investigations to take root. All the media houses involved in the scandal are required to provide the video footage that was recorded and run on TV for review by UCC. After the slatted 30 days of investigation, a report will determine whether the journalists have a case to answer as revealed by the UCC executive director Eng. Godfrey Mutabazi

Eng. Godfrey Mutabaazi the CEO Uganda Communications Commission. Photo from internet

The stations affected include NTV, NBS TV, BBS TV, Bukedde TV, Kingdom TV and Salt TV. Others are; Akaboozi FM, Beat FM, Capital FM, CBS FM, Pearl Fm, Sapientia FM and Radio Simba. The media houses were ordered to suspend producers, heads of news, and heads of programs .

Without Press freedom, there is no democracy. If people’s views cannot be heard, then their freedom and voice is candidly being murdered by the state. The Ugandan Press and journalists have been openly and mercilessly been suppressed by regulatory authorities and the most recent being the suspension of 39 Journalists from 13 media houses by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) on claims of misinterpretation of information, views, facts and events in a manner likely to mislead and harm the public during broadcasts and main news bulletins.

Media practitioners, scholars, human rights actors and political leaders among which include the Uganda Journalists Association (UJA), the African Center for Media Excellence (ACME), Uganda Parliamentary Press Association(UPPA) , The American Embassy among others have since complained about what many described as UCC’s attack on media freedoms.

“…. it’s depressing to learn of the continued transgression onto the media rights by several government agencies. We are aware of more journalists and media houses whose names and brands have been marked in red by the commission over doing their job in a way that is deemed “ailing”. These excesses by the authorities can’t go unchallenged,” read the UJA president’s letter Hajj Kazibwe Bashir Mbaziira on the on going media attack.

Mbaziira went ahead and said that its time for journalists and all media practitioners to speak out further and louder in unity as a body, otherwise their future stands ripe to be eaten pieces.

In the same spirit, the NAB chairperson, Mr Kin Karisa, said shortly after the meeting with UCC that they will continue to protest as they have always done and that the UCC investigations will not stop media houses from operating. law authorities and organisations like Freedom of Expression Hub, Chapter Four Uganda and The Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET) did not seat back, they also joined thousands in condemning Mr Mutabazi’s decisions to suspend media employees and his use of excessive powers beyond his mandate to regulate the media and demand for the immediate withdraw of his orders to all affected media houses

Joyce Bagala, one of the 39 journalist that are required to step down by UCC.
Photo from internet

Uganda was one of the countries in the world that celebrated the world press freedom day on 3rd May. For Uganda, this day came days after the communications regulator UCC directed the suspension of 13 broadcasters for broadcasting content alleged to be in breach of the minimum broadcasting standards. however this gave journalists, civil society and activists organisations an opportunity to parade their dismay over press freedom in Uganda. These marched on Kampala streets to raise awareness on the need to safeguard media freedom in the country.

Among participants of the celebrations held at Kampala railway grounds were the chairman of the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) Med Kaggwa,the head of Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda Robert Ssempala, Uganda Prisons Service spokesperson Frank Baine and some delegates from UN human rights.

UHRC was joined by other partners who include UNESCO, UJA, GIZ and OHCHR in Kampala to add their voices to the advocacy for a better operating environment for the media and to open discussion on how enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists can be enhanced in Uganda.

The Department of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University through it’s head Dr. William Tayeebwa also condemned the act by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) to suspend thirty nine (39) journalists from thirteen media houses both radio and television. He continues to advise (UCC) that the media is a development partner to the state and not it’s enemy.

Dr. Tayeebwa continued to say that, while the Department acknowledges that media practitioners have a concomitant obligation to act responsibly, journalists also need to reaffirm their commitment to promote independent and fact-based reporting.

Dr. William Tayeebwa, the Head of Department of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University. Photo from internet

To the extent that it is legitimate to criminalize the dissemination of information – for example, hate speech and incitement of violence – this should be done through a law of general application rather than a media specific law. If an interest is worthy of criminal protection, it will need to be protected against all forms of dissemination not just publication in the media.

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