Age limit debate: Media on receiving end

The media has been on the receiving end as the debate on whether or not to change the presidential age limit continues. In October alone, two radio stations were taken off air after they were accused of inciting violence, while a TV station was asked to fire a producer for a news show over the same accusation.

Before the broadcast regulator, Uganda Communications Commission took Masindi-based Radio Kitara off air, it had stopped the station from relaying live a council meeting that was scheduled to debate the age limit bill on Tuesday.

In Kanungu District, UCC took Kanungu Broadcasting Services off air on October 20 saying they continued to run a talk show that the commission was investigating for breaching the minimum broadcasting standards.

“The commission notes with concern that Kanungu FM has to date ignored its directive to stop broadcasting of programs that are subject of the ongoing investigations,” the letter reads in part, before reminding the station about its licence renewal.

“In light of the above, the Commission has, in exercise of its powers under section 6(2) decided to order Kanungu FM to immediately shut down its broadcasting operations and the Commission has accordingly confiscated Kanungu FM’s broadcast apparatus,” the letter dated October 20 XXXXXXX reads.

UCC instructed the station to also suspend the station manager Ronald Agaba and a talk show host     Desmond Kyokwijuka Misairi. The station was opened two days later after a meeting between UCC and its management.

In Kampala, UCC asked the management of Pearl FM on October 17 to suspend a programme, Inside Story, that the regulator said was “allegedly likely to cause public insecurity and violence”.

UCC issued another notice to Kampala-based NBS TV on October 25 asking the management to suspend a producer for the programme, NBS Now, saying that it carried content that was “offensive and contrary to minimum broadcasting standards”.

“In order to allow the Commission to thoroughly investigate the substance of the said complaint, NBS Television is hereby directed to immediately suspend the producer/news editor for the said editions of News Now programme,” the letter states.

Previously, UCC had banned the live coverage of heated age limit debates in parliament saying that the broadcasts would incite the public into violence. The closure of the two radio stations is UCC’s latest attempt at limiting the debate about the age limit.

William Rwebembera, Radio Kitara’s manager, told ACME that the station received a call from the Resident District Commissioner who asked the station not to air the live council meeting. The station, Mr Rwebembera said, always airs the district council meetings live and had never had an issue with UCC until when the call came.

“When the RDC called, I accepted that I will not air the programme,” Mr Rwebembera said.

Later, the station was called by the UCC regional office and told to not air the programme but no reason was given.

The radio station was however switched off later by UCC, citing technical grounds. In February 2017, UCC had said it would renew the station’s licence after it had fulfilled a list of technical requirements.  The regulator invoked this to shut down the station on Wednesday.

“Of course it is political. Instead of advancing the content issues and what is aired, they used the technical issue,” Mr Rwebembera said.

UCC spokesperson Fred Otunnu, however, insists that Radio Kitara and Kanungu Broadcasting Station were closed for non-compliance with licence terms.

“They had been issued with final warnings to fulfil their obligations a long time ago,” he said.

He added, “Content issues not withstanding they had long standing issues of non renewal of their licence, thus operating illegally.”

Kalule Saulaiman, the talk show host suspended on Pearl FM, says the show was suspended because those in support of the age limit bill feel they are not given enough airtime.

“We are doing our work professionally, covering those of Togikwatako (those against) and Kugikwatako (those for),” Kalule, who has been on suspension for the last two weeks, said.

“All this is politics. They are just hiding the issues behind the minimum broadcasting standards,” he added.

During a live broadcast of the 12:30 p.m. news bulletin on NBS TV, one of the MPs against the age limit change made allegations against President Museveni in relation to the Kasese killings in November last year that left more than 100 people dead.

However, a source at NBS TV said that even before the notice, UCC officials had met with the TV management over their coverage of the age limit consultative meetings that turned violent in Rukungiri, Jinja, and Iganga which had been covered extensively.

The source, however, noted that while they erred in airing the MP’s statements as is, the intention of UCC was to control what they were broadcasting about the bill.

A statement released by the Uganda Human Rights Network for Journalists said UCC’s actions were oppressive. “They should carry out thorough investigations before taking any punitive action. Ordering a media house to suspend its staff is going overboard, and is not part of UCC’s mandate. Such actions are intended to curtail freedom of expression and media freedom,” the statement reads.

About Grace Natabaalo

Grace Natabaalo is a programme assistant at the African Centre for Media Excellence.

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