Somewhere in the middle of his speech before a journalism awards ceremony in Kampala recently, President Museveni had an important question to ask. “So,” he said, “is there press freedom in Uganda?”
Journalists who covered the ceremony – the 2010 CNN Multichoice African Journalist of the Year Awards, perhaps the most prestigious event of its kind on the continent, on May 29 – said a few murmurs were heard in the audience. As it turned out, however, the President said “yes” to his own question. Then, according to a transcript of his speech, he added: “So much that journalists have the luxury to abuse a bigger percentage of it.”
Mr. Museveni’s musings were intended, in the spirit of the ceremony, to inspire African journalism towards greater heights, but they also pointed to the profession’s dilemma at a time when the government is seriously considering amending the Press and Journalist Act to include provisions that would leave the independent media weaker, not stronger. His comments also followed a pattern of public comments in which the Ugandan leader alternates between feeling sorry for journalists – in March he asked a group of reporters why they seemed miserable, speculating that they do not earn enough – and condemning them for alleged bias or incompetence. However he speaks, jokingly or not, Mr. Museveni does not usually speak gloriously of journalists.
In his speech at the awards ceremony, the President attempted to justify the proposed amendments, saying Ugandan journalists had not reached the professionalism needed to be left to their own devices. “Needless to say, the journalists’ remonstration with the government comes from the thinking that they are better placed to manage themselves while using press freedoms,” he said. “And, we are saying, the state is still an interested party in how people use freedoms because we have the dual mandate of managing the affairs of this country and the legitimacy to engage other stakeholders in the development processes of our country.” In other words, according to Mr. Museveni, government control can help Ugandan journalists do a better job.
The proposed amendments to the Press and Journalist Act, contained in a draft Bill currently being discussed by the government, have been condemned by professional journalists at home and abroad, with a number of watchdog organisations saying the proposals would imperil the independent media in Uganda. According to the draft Bill, newspapers would be required to renew their licences annually and would also be barred from publishing material that is considered detrimental to national security, stability and unity.
Ugandan journalists have, even under prevailing conditions, occasionally been summoned by the police to explain the sources of their stories, and often to answer charges of publishing information detrimental to national security. Some Daily Monitor journalists, for example, have pending court cases stemming from published stories, while Central Broadcasting Service, or CBS, the Buganda-owned radio station, was last year shut down by authorities who accused it of, among other allegations, spreading lies against the President.
The draft Bill, critics say, will give the government even greater powers to crack the whip over what it considers errant journalism. The critics ask: Who determines, for example, that a line has been crossed when it comes to the publication of information that compromises national security? Who, generally speaking, should know? “In all, the bill provides authorities with sweeping powers to restrict the flow of information and limit public debate at a crucial juncture,” the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement in April, echoing the prevalent view among professional journalists in Uganda.
It is unclear at this point if the proposed amendments will become law, although Mr. Museveni said in his speech that he was hoping emerging issues would “be discussed without making undue accusations” regarding the state of media freedom in Uganda. A discussion of media freedom or the lack of it, he suggested, was misguided. “Uganda has a strong media commensurate to our level of national socio-political development,” he said. “The main socio-political debates in Uganda now are about the administrative functions of the state, not political or other freedoms. The issue of freedoms and rights was sorted in 1986 and coded in the 1995 Constitution.”
Mr. Museveni’s sharpest critique of Ugandan journalism came later that night. “Journalism, though a most profound profession, has been severely abused,” he said. “You are the ears and mouth of society. Ethics, morality and objectivity must therefore guide your reporting. I urge our journalists to interest themselves in the affairs of Africa and, while we share experiences with the rest of the world, still aim at originality.”
These comments, like those before, were also intended to inspire, but they returned to the essential question: Is the government, and President Museveni in particular, qualified to make prescriptions for a healthy media?
At least two Ugandan journalists have been reported murdered in one week by unknown assailants, causing fear in the media fraternity.
On 15 September, Mr Dickson Ssentongo, a news anchor with Prime Radio was waylaid by unidentified men at Nantabulirirwa village, Mukono district, who reportedly beat him to death.
Ssentongo, 29, had worked as a Luganda news presenter for Prime Radio for two years and as a part-time court assessor for the Mukono High Court, reports say. He also joined active politics and was an aspiring councillor for Nantabulirirwa Parish at Ggoma Sub-County on the Democratic Party ticket. He died at Mulago Hospital where he had been rushed for treatment.
On 12 September, Paul Kiggundu, also a radio journalist working for Top Radio in Rakai district was killed by a mob of bodaboda cyclists while recording scenes of the demolition of the homestead of a suspected robber and murderer in the area. The cyclists pounced on him, beat him and left him for dead as they accused him of spying for police. Mr Kiggundu identified himself as a journalist but he was not spared. He died on the way to hospital.
In a statement released by the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda), the two are the latest victims in a period of less than eight years. In 2004, the statement says, Wilbrod Kasujja, a news anchor at a community radio in Buwama, was murdered, but his killers have never been apprehended.
“As a journalist rights body, HRNJ-Uganda condemns in strongest terms possible this act of people taking the law into their hands,” said Mr Robert Ssempala, Board Chairman for HRNJ-Uganda. “We demand that police should act steadily fast to apprehend and bring all the perpetrators of this mob justice to book.”
International press freedom advocates have also come out to condemn the acts and called upon responsible authorities to hunt for the killers.
The head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, said in statement released on 15 September that Kiggundu’s killers should be brought to book quickly.
"I deplore the death of Paul Kiggundu,” she said. “He died in the exercise of his mission as a journalist, covering the news so that the public could be informed. His murder is a tragic illustration of the risks media professionals take every day in the name of freedom of expression. I call on the Ugandan authorities to make every effort to investigate this crime and bring the culprits to justice."
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also urged authorities to bring the culprits to justice warning that this is a politically sensitive time as Ugandans get ready for the 2011 general elections.
"Authorities must do their utmost to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice, especially at this politically sensitive time in the lead-up to national elections," CPJ's East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes said.
Reporters Without Borders has asked authorities to protect journalists from such heinous acts.
“This incident highlights the frequency to which journalists are exposed to violence because they are on the front line of demonstrations, conflicts or events that get out of control and are seen as unwanted witnesses,” the group said in a statement. “We urge the Ugandan authorities to deal severely with those responsible, so that such incidents do not recur.”
Police are investigating the murders but no arrests have been made yet.
In another related incident, last week, a photojournalist was assaulted by a prominent businessman who accused him of taking his picture without his permission. Mr Arthur Kintu, a photographer with The New Vision newspaper was slapped by Mr Hassan Basajjabalaba during the ruling party’s primaries in Wakiso district.
Mr Kintu, who had been accredited to cover the function, said, “I was photographing Basajjabalaba upon learning that he had been re- elected to the post. He angrily charged at me asking who had given me the permission to take his photos. He slapped me twice and boxed me in the face. He shattered my lips and I started bleeding all over,” Kintu said.
It has been reported that the same businessman roughed up Mr Ivan Kalanzi who works for Radio Two (locally known as Akaboozi) two months ago at the Uganda Moslem Supreme Council headquarters at Old Kampala.
Mr Basajjabalaba is scheduled to appear before court on 17 September to answer charges of assaulting Mr Kintu.
In yet another related incident, on Wednesday morning, a judge banned journalists from covering her sessions, accusing them of stalking her.
The controversial former Inspector General of Government, Justice Faith Mwondha, barred Frank Mugabi and Jackie Nambogga of The New Vision, Aldon Walukamba of Uganda Radio Network and Catherine Asiyo of Kiira FM from entering court.
The judge reportedly said journalists should seek her permission before covering her sessions. “I understand you people are from the media. Why are you following me? I come to court to work and I don't work through press. I don't need publicity," she said. "You should first study judges who want cameras. Go away until my session is over.”
The Magistrates Court on May 31 remanded a journalist with an online publication over a story he published, linking the Uganda government to the July 11 Kampala bomb blasts that killed 78 people. Mr Timothy Kalyegira was charged with criminal libel.
According to the charge sheet, the journalist is alleged to have unlawfully published a defamatory story in the Uganda Record, an online publication, with intentions of defaming President Museveni. He allegedly committed the offence between July 12 and 16 last year.
Mr Kalyegira denied the charges and was released on bail the next day after spending a night in jail. He returns to court on June 30 for mention of his case.
Mr Kalyegira said his troubles began when he went to Kira Road Police Station, requesting for the release of his passport which was in their custody.
Mr Kalyegira said he wanted to travel to South Africa to attend a Google conference.
The police asked him to pick it but when he showed up, his police bond was cancelled and he was taken to court. Mr Rwakafuuzi explained that the charges against his client do not stand because criminal libel is the publication of some prohibited matter in a permanent form but for the case of Mr Kalyegira, the alleged publication was done via cyberspace and no one knows where he was geographically.
On July 11, at least 78 revellers were killed in twin bomb blasts at Kyandondo Rugby Club at Lugogo and the Ethiopian Village Restaurant at Kabalagala during the screening of the final World Cup football match between Spain and Netherlands.
Al-Shabab militants have since claimed responsibility for the attack.
The offence of criminal libel is being challenged in the Supreme Court on grounds that it is inconsistent with the Constitution. This means that no case of criminal libel can proceed until the Supreme Court pronounces itself on its constitutionality.
SOURCE: DAILY MONITOR