Ugandan Media Owners a Big Threat to Press Freedom

There were celebrations at Bulange, the seat of the Buganda Kingdom, when CBS was re-opened late last month. The station, in which the kingdom is the majority shareholder, operates from the same place.

I have since heard many Mengo loyalists and others shouting themselves hoarse about the latest victory against the central government. I would take a more cautious approach. Yes, CBS is back on air. And yes, the popular radio station has not met the tough conditions that the government set earlier this year. But this is not a victory for media freedom. At best it is a victory for business and politics.

Here is why.

CBS was closed in September 2009 year and its licence revoked for allegedly breaching the minimum broadcasting standards enshrined in the Electronic Media Act. The said standards require broadcasters to ensure that any programme broadcast “is not contrary to public morality; does not promote the culture of violence or ethnic prejudice among the public….; in case of a news broadcast, is free from distortion of facts; is not likely to create public insecurity or violence; and is in compliance with the existing law.”

The station was accused of inciting violence and ethnic hatred during the riots that followed a standoff between the Buganda Kingdom establishment and the central government over the king’s visit to Kayunga. Nearly 30 people died in the riots.

The specifics of the charges were never laid out, and CBS was not given an opportunity to defend itself.

Although the Broadcasting Council, the statutory regulator, took responsibility for the decision to close CBS, it turned out, not surprisingly, that this was a government decision. Over the months that followed, negotiations over reopening CBS were not with the Council, but with the President and his Cabinet, which set some tough conditions, including relocating the station from Mengo, a public apology, and firing some hostile presenters. Mengo and CBS rejected the conditions and the station remained off air for more than a year.

Then at the end of October, President Museveni directed that CBS be re-opened because he had received numerous calls from listeners, some of whom were NRM supporters, pleading that the station should be given another chance. In the past, the president had threatened CBS because its presenters allegedly abused him and maligned his ruling NRM.

Now, according to international instruments and protocols, to which Uganda is a party, media regulators are supposed to be independent of governments and other partisan interests. Uganda’s Broadcasting Council is clearly not independent of the government.

But the Chairman of the council, Mr. Godfrey Mutabazi, has made some interesting comments about the re-opening of CBS, which the local media have unfortunately failed to interrogate.

According to Saturday Monitor of October 30, he said, “The radio was re-opened on political grounds, but its re-opening is not legally binding.” Mutabazi reportedly added that a meeting between CBS management and his council would convene soon to agree on the license terms and conditions in a free and fair process.

For now, then it may well be that Mengo got itself some more hot air or byoya bya nswa, as the Baganda would say.

It appears to me that nothing in the current arrangement would stop Mr Museveni and his handlers from banning CBS after the elections next year.

And this is why I don’t see the re-opening of CBS as a victory for media freedom. In fact, I see it as another sad commentary on the death of freedom of expression in Uganda.

Already we are hearing whispers that under some backroom deal with the central government, the management of CBS agreed that certain presenters would not be back on air. Significantly, they also reportedly agreed to cut sound bites out of news. That way, they would be able to manage what is said about Museveni and his government better.

Elsewhere, we have noted the increasing self-censorship in newsrooms following the closure of CBS and three other radio stations in September 2009.

All this is largely because media owners are not willing to stand up to Museveni. Some radio station owners told an international joint mission on freedom of expression in Uganda in September that this attitude is informed by business considerations. Standing up to Museveni could mean your station could be taken off air for a year, as happened to CBS.

As long as media owners continue viewing their radio stations and newspapers purely as business enterprises, without any serious consideration for their public service role, freedom of expression and press freedom will continue being sacrificed at the altar of profit.

Some years ago, a government minister informed us that a newspaper I edited had to apologise to the president for a “false” story we had published or we risked being closed. I told the board I would not be party to any apology as long as our reporter stood by his story. I knew the source, and I trusted the reporter more than the president. One board member accused me of harbouring the idealism of American college professors. I told him even in the United States, the government would have won the battle against press freedom had media owners such as the Sulzberger family (New York Times) and Catherine Graham (Washington Post) not stood up to power back in early 1970s. He saw my point. No apology was made. And the newspaper was not closed.

Their station having been closed for more than a year, I don’t know why CBS management could not stretch this to a more permanent conclusion. It would have been good to take the fight to the courts and all the way to the Supreme Court so that it could pronounce itself on the illegalities that the government enforces in the name of protecting the public interest. Of course this would have been an expensive venture. But who said freedom was cheap?

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About the Author: Dr. Mwesige is the Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence. He has worked as Group Training Editor for the Nation Media Group, head of the Department of Mass Communication at Makerere University where he was also a senior lecturer, and executive editor of the Monitor in Kampala.

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