Reporters have rejected a new proposal by the Ugandan Parliament that would have them locked out for filing stories containing what the Speaker considers to be inaccuracies.
The proposal also gives the Speaker power to dismiss journalists from Parliament if they do not follow the rules of procedure of the House.
The new proposed Rule states: “Any media institution whose representative infringes these Rules or any rules made by the Speaker for the regulation of the admittance of strangers, or persistently misreports the proceedings of the House, or neglects or refuses on request from the Clerk to correct any wrong report (false news) thereof to the satisfaction of the Speaker, may be excluded from representation in the Press Gallery for such a term as the House [wishes].”
The justification for the rule, according to Parliament, is “to ensure that the parliamentary press reports objectively on Parliament”.
On December 1, the reporters, under the Uganda Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA), made a submission to the committee on rules, privileges and discipline on the proposed amendment. They held that “the rules should guard against inserting any provision that would in sum seek to punish the parliamentary press for any wrongful/false reporting. The press should be trusted to exercise responsible parliamentary reporting”.
They urged the committee to instead regard a 2004 Supreme Court decision which nullified the offence of publication of false news, arguing that it was unconstitutional.
In an opinion article in the Daily Monitor, Mr. Yasiin Mugerwa, a senior Parliament reporter wrote: “When you see MPs pushing for such provisions, you may be excused to imagine that Parliament has connived with the Executive to silence free media.”
He added, “Those pushing for this amendment need to know that, as leaders, we can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. To assume that journalists should always report what gratifies the Speaker and Parliament for that matter, defeats the whole essence of journalism.
“Again, threatening to censure journalists over distortions in their reporting is unwarranted since what members of the Rules Committee call “misrepresentation” is too general and can be abused by people with a warped agenda to kill journalism”.
The association, however, said Parliament should retain the right to suspend access for media representatives who violate Standing Orders or otherwise disrupt parliamentary proceedings”.
Mr. Charles Odongtho, a member of UPPA says that such Standing Orders may include among others, accessing areas restricted to Members of Parliament such as the VIP and MPs' lobby. Others include carrying weapons, going against the agreed parliament decorum or dressing in an undignified manner and also filming restricted areas.
In addition, the reporters want Parliament to open up all committee hearings to the press, especially the appointments committee.
“We are of the view that this committee be opened to the public because the people being vetted are public officials,” said Ms. Agnes Nandutu, the president of UPPA.
The reporters also want Parliament to allow them to carry electronic gadgets and tools of trade that allow recording and instant relay of information.
Mr. Odongtho said: “If I want to access Parliament with my iPad, I should be able to do that. If I want to Facebook, I should be able to do that. I suggest that Parliament institutes administrative measures that can take note of changes in technology.”