Journalists and supporters of press freedom have condemned the government’s crackdown on the media, saying it undermines the free flow of information and democracy itself.
Speaking during celebrations to mark World Press Freedom Day at Golf Course Hotel in Kampala yesterday, Ms Patricia Mahoney, the deputy chief of the US Mission in Uganda, pointed to the detention and harassment of journalists by security operatives during the recent general election campaigns, as well as the government’s shutting down of social media and mobile money services on Election Day.
“These infringements on the media and freedom of information send the wrong message to Ugandans,” Ms Mahoney said. “At a time when more Ugandans are online, when more Ugandans want a say in how their country is and should be governed, efforts to restrict the press and people’s access to information are a big step in the wrong direction.”
The event was organised by the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), in partnership with the US Embassy, Twaweza, Embassy of Sweden and Hivos, among others.
In his welcome remarks, ACME board member Zie Gariyo said that although the media in Uganda is vibrant, it’s still under threat including physical attacks, destruction of work equipment, and shut downs especially of radio stations outside Kampala.
“When the lion is chasing you, you run to the lion’s den, how do you expect to survive when the lion returns home?” he said in reference to police brutality against journalists who at the end of the day have to report their cases to their tormentors (the police).
Because of attacks against journalists, Mr Gariyo said, media proprietors ”try to play safe”, the reason most “radio stations are always playing music”.
Review regulatory regime
Mr Adolf Mbaine, who presented an ACME-commissioned paper titled “Twenty Years of the Press and Journalist Act in Uganda: Milestones, Challenges and Remedies”, said the media environment will get even tougher for Ugandan journalists in the coming years.
“Issues of media freedom are going to be even more pertinent in the coming years because of what is happening in Uganda,” he said, referring to the political fallout from the February elections. “Sometimes we pretend that things are normal because no one is shooting at us. The [political] uncertainty that surrounds this country is quite visible.”
Mr Mbaine, a doctoral candidate at the University of Johannesburg, added the media regulatory regime “needs to be comprehensively reviewed because it goes against freedom of the media”.
“We should have industry-led remedies for our own regulation outside the control and financing of government,” he added, making a case for media self-regulation.
At the same event, journalists were urged to exercise professional and ethical conduct in their work.
Ms Mahoney said that just like the government is mandated to protect press freedom, the media too should do the same.
“Members of the media must do their part and respect the important public trust they hold and the responsibility their work entails,” she said. “When journalists and editors ignore their responsibility to verify their stories and report accurately, they undermine the integrity of their profession and the trust that people place in them.”
During a panel discussion on ‘freedom of expression and dissemination for non-traditional media’, musician Irene Ntale said that many Ugandan journalists who cover the arts are hell-bent on negative reporting about artistes.
“They look forward to bringing us down,” she said, adding that a journalist would rather write a story about a musician’s wig falling off on stage than how the entire performance went.
Arts journalist Moses Serugo said because of restrictions on free expression, some artistes now concentrate on doing “bubble-gum pop music to make ends meet” instead of releasing socially conscious music.
But musician Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine said his couple of attempts at critical music have been met with a ban on the airwaves as owners of broadcast outlets second-guess themselves, fearing that the state could go after them.
Call for unity
While a majority of journalists and activists blamed the government and its security agencies for highhanded tactics, as well as advertisers, for curtailing media freedom, Ms Margaret Sentamu of Uganda Media Women’s Association, appealed for unity if media freedom is to be effectively defended.
She said that press freedom “will not be delivered on a silver platter” and thus journalists should become activists for their freedoms.
“The media in Uganda should not blame government for regulating it. The government found a disorganised media. The media in Uganda needs to shape up. We should stop doing business as usual,” Ms Sentamu said.
She bemoaned instances where some media managers remain silent when their journalists have been assaulted in the line of duty.
According to Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda, between October 2015 and February 2016, some 70 journalists, most covering election-related events, faced various violations and attacks by state security operatives.
Uganda Law Society President Francis Gimara appealed for media literacy saying the public can only rally behind journalists and press freedom if they are aware of its importance.
“We should not just stop at talking about media freedom but go to the public and make them understand it,” Mr Gimara said.
He added: “We have become timid as a country. People don’t want to speak for what is right. People have all retreated into their homes, saying ‘for me and my family’. What about For God and My Country?”
According to UNESCO, World Press Freedom day is celebrated worldwide every 3 May to advance fundamental principles of press freedom and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in line of duty.
This year, main celebrations were held in Helsinki, Finland, and the themes of the day were: freedom of information and sustainable development; protecting press freedom from censorship and surveillance overreach; and ensuring safety of journalists online and offline.
Journalists killed in line of duty
Since January 2016, some 26 journalists and media stuff have been killed around the world in line of duty, according to the International Federation of Journalists. In 2015, all of 115 journalists were killed, 135 in 2014, and 123 in 2013.
The Committee to Protect Journalists lists five Ugandan journalists who have been killed since 1995. They are:
1. Paul Kiggundu, TOP Radio and TV
September 11, 2010, in an area outside Kalisizio, Uganda
2. Jimmy Higenyi, United Media Consultants and Trainers
January 12, 2002, in Kampala, Uganda
3. Charles Ingabire, Inyenyeri News
December 1, 2011, in an area near Kampala, Uganda
4. Dickson Ssentongo, Prime Radio
September 13, 2010, in Nantabuliriwa, Uganda
5. Hussein Musa Njuki, Assalaam
August 28, 1995, in Kampala, Uganda