Four days after the bomb blasts that killed more than 70 people in Kampala on July 11, I received a call from a Ugandan friend attending an international conference in the lakeside town of Entebbe. “What are you people teaching your journalists?” she asked. “Foreign delegates here are in shock about the pictures they have seen in the newspapers and on television.”
After a long exchange, we agreed that some media houses had gone overboard. But I also added that it was a complex ethical dilemma.
On July 12, readers awoke to shocking images of the carnage of the previous night. That night I had been at Shell Sports Club, which shares a fence with Kyadondo Rugby Club, and I had seen scores of people, some injured, running away from the scene of the blasts. But nothing had prepared me for what I saw the following morning. The leading newspapers, The New Vision, Daily Monitor, and Bukedde all had graphic pictures of dead bodies from the bomb attack scenes at Kyadondo Rugby Club and the Ethiopian Village Restaurant in Kabalagala on their front pages. The three newspapers also carried more pictures of death on the inside pages, the most memorable being of the many victims who lay motionless in their chairs.
Red Pepper, the country’s leading tabloid, did not carry the story, because the editors had probably taken the paper to bed much earlier. It would obviously have carried even more shocking photos, as the tabloid did in the days that followed. Said Fred Mubiru of Kampala, who lost a younger brother in the Kyadondo explosions: “Those pictures were traumatising, especially for the families of the victims and children.”
He added: “In other countries they don’t show as many pictures of dead people.”
Yet, the debate over the use of graphic images of death in the media is universal. We heard it in Kenya during the post-election violence in 2008 in which more than 1,000 people were killed; in South Africa during the xenophobic violence of 2008; in the United States during the coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and more recently the Haiti earthquake.
The arguments against the use of explicit pictures of accidents, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and wars usually are that it is an exploitative and sensationalistic practice that offends the “dignity of the victims” and the “sensibilities of audiences” as well as traumatising relatives and children.
The arguments for the use of shocking graphic images usually are that audiences can’t understand the carnage and horrors of natural disasters, war, and terrorism without the visuals. To withhold shocking pictures in some circumstances, it is argued, would be to sanitise ugly realities that people need to see. It is also argued that pictures provide a vicarious experience that words alone cannot capture—or at least not as easily. To use, the journalism cliché, a picture tells a thousand words.
Joachim Buwembo, a veteran Ugandan journalist who is now a Knight Foundation Fellow mentoring journalists in Tanzania, used this same argument to defend some of the graphic images from the Kampala bomb explosions. “There was some informational value in the pictures,” he said. “I was shocked to see pictures of dead people whose bodies were intact. I got the story from the pictures. ”
Newspaper editors speak out
I talked to several Ugandan editors about what informed their decisions to carry graphic pictures of dead victims.
Said Arinaitwe Rugyendo of the Red Pepper: “The news is becoming extremely competitive in Uganda. You can’t afford to leave out details. We are forced to run TV in the newspapers.”
He added: “There is a sense of shock value, but the pictures also have impact.”
Is it exploitative? Yes, Rugyendo said, but blamed it on the readers. “The reason they rush for the paper is because of the value they attach to [these gory details]. If it was offensive, they would not buy the paper. In fact, the perception of the readership—that Red Pepper will have the details—exerts pressure on us.”
Joseph Were, editor of The Independent, did not see any justification for the use of pictures of dead bodies.
“We don’t want to shock people who are already traumatised,” he said. “Grotesque pictures would spread the trauma.”
Did The Independent prefer sanitising an ugly reality? “That’s an argument that always comes up,” Were said, “but what’s the point of the gory pictures? The real story was that 74 people had died in the bomb blasts. It is dehumanising and also shows no respect for the dead and their relatives.”
He said some newspapers “exploit shock”. For Ugandan readers, no prizes for guessing which ones he was referring to.
Barbara Kaija, editor-in-chief of The New Vision Group, who also has overall editorial control over the Luganda-language daily, Bukedde, said, “We used the pictures because of the impact. It was to capture the enormity of the [carnage]. After that we stopped.”
Daniel Kalinaki, managing editor of Daily Monitor, said, “Ordinarily, we don’t use pictures of dead bodies, but in this case it was a seismic event and people needed to see the extent of the carnage. We thought showing the extent of the carnage was in public interest more than sanitising.”
He added, “After day one, the story had been told, so we used more dignified pictures.”
Kalinaki said he saw pictures in other newspapers that they could not have used at the Monitor. “There is a difference between running a picture to show the extent of the carnage and running a gory picture to shock,” he said.
Some newspapers went for the latter. This is “dehumanising the victims needlessly”, Kalinaki said. “There is a macabre fascination with death at some newspapers, it appears.”
Buwembo, who was replaced by Kalinaki at Daily Monitor, agreed that it was “not good to flog [the pictures].”
Charles Onyango-Obbo, the Executive Editor of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Division, said the newspapers, especially Red Pepper, went overboard with the pictures. “Beyond a certain point, those gory pictures don’t tell a story,” he said. “They only serve a morbid interest.”
Onyango-Obbo added: “And personally, I felt for the relatives of those people who were pictured dead in their chairs. How can they ever get over that?”
So, what would he have done had he still been in charge at the Monitor, which he co-founded?
“The one thing I would definitely have done is black out the faces of the victims,” Onyango-Obbo said. “And, I would have used only one picture, if at all. You don’t add anything by using 10.”
My own sense is that while the media should respect the sensibilities of their audiences and generally limit the use of explicit images of death, there are exceptional circumstances where the use of such pictures is justified. However, even in those circumstances editors and photographers need to reason out their decisions to publish. The decision to publish should never be a fait accompli.
Here are some considerations that could help newsrooms as they grapple with decisions over the use of graphic images of death and violence.
- Establish newsroom principles or guidelines on the use of disturbing images. At the Nation Media Group, where I was in charge of newsroom training until about a year ago, we had the following rule:
“The media should not publish anything that is obscene, vulgar or offensive to public good taste. A story, photograph or drawing/cartoon of questionable taste should have significant news value to justify its usage.” It went on: “…publication of photographs showing mutilated bodies, bloody incidents and abhorrent scenes should be avoided unless the publication of such photographs will serve the larger public interest.”
- What purpose does the use of graphic images serve? Is there a redeeming value in running the graphic images? Is there an inherent informational or journalistic value beyond satisfying morbid curiosity of audiences? These are fundamental questions that need to be answered in newsroom conversations on decisions to use graphic and shocking images.
- Are the bodies identifiable? It is more acceptable when they are not.
- Don’t show the same footage over and over (in the case of TV) or use the same pictures in newspapers.
- Consider having an editor’s note explaining the reasoning behind the decision to publish graphic images. Kenneth Irby, the director of the Visual Journalism Group at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in the United States, says their research has shown that when there is some transparency in the coverage—such as sharing with audiences the process that journalists went through to make decisions about what to publish—news consumers are far more accepting of coverage of what would otherwise be considered offensive material.
- Consider publishing a clear warning on the front page of the newspaper, or reading out the warning in the case of television. That way, those who will be offended can choose not to go on reading or viewing.
- Consider uploading most pictures to your website, where there is a clear warning that some of the material could be offensive.
- Above all, look for and publish happy faces of the victims, if the relatives are okay with that. The Daily Monitor did exactly that on the front page of the July 13 edition. Those pictures, more of which other newspapers published in subsequent days, told a heartbreaking and most enduring human story; a story of mostly young people whose lives had been ended abruptly on a night when the whole world was supposed to be celebrating the end of Africa’s first World Cup.
The first half of 2010 has been a period of heightened activity amongst media practitioners in Uganda. It is all because of the government’s proposed changes to the law that governs the print media. The draft Press and Journalist (Amendment) Bill, 2010, seeks to amend the Press and Journalist Act, 2000 (formerly Statute 1995) to require, crucially, the licensing of newspapers.
Journalists, media house owners, media associations, and civil society groups say the changes would severely limit media freedoms. The proposed amendments are draconian and amount to a reversal of Uganda’s achievements for more than a generation because they enslave the media and do not advance good governance, said Dr. G.W. Kanyeihamba, a retired justice of the Supreme Court, while delivering the keynote address at a consultative forum in Kampala on April 30. “If passed into law, this country will ultimately reap evil from them.”
The government, on the other hand, argues that Ugandan media are in infancy and therefore incapable of self-regulation. “Left on their own,” said Information Minister Kabakumba Matsiko at the same meeting, “some media houses would cause incitement to anarchy and even to genocide.”
To start a newspaper under present law one has to register with the General Post Office as a formality. The new proposals seek to change this by requiring the statutory Media Council to license newspapers annually and to revoke a licence in case of breach of licensing conditions. Say the proposals:
The Council shall before issuing a license under this section take in (sic) account the following …
Proof of existence of adequate technical facilities; and
Social, cultural and economic values of the newspaper.
On revocation of the licence, it says:
The Council may revoke a license issued under this section on the following grounds –
Publishing material that is prejudicial to national security, stability and unity;
Publishing any matter that is injurious to Uganda’s relations with new (sic) neighbours or friendly countries;
Publishing material that amounts to economic sabotage; and
Contravention of any condition imposed in the license.
Other objectionable provisions include restriction of foreign ownership of newspapers in Uganda, and a jail term of up to two years or a fine of nearly Shs1,000,000 ($500) for those who do not obey the licensing requirements.
Disregard of the constitution
The proposals give a lot of powers to the Media Council. It is up to the council to determine, for example, what amounts to “material that is prejudicial to national security, stability and unity”. Those opposed to the suggested changes see a ploy for beating what the government may regard as stubborn publications into line. If the bill becomes law, the Media Council will assume powers similar to those of the Broadcasting Council under the Electronic Media Act, 2000. The Broadcasting Council routinely shuts down radio stations and suspends journalists and presenters for airing things the government does not like. It does this in the name of ensuring public order. In any case, for radio and TV, say media experts, licensing is needed because of limited spectrum. There is no logic, however, in licensing newspapers unless the government is offering them free newsprint, said Mr. Henry Maina, a Kenyan journalist and lawyer who heads Article 19 in East Africa.
Some of the proposed amendments contravene constitutional provisions and fall short of international best practice behaviour. The constitution provides that limitations on human rights, including the right to freedom of the press and other media, must be “acceptable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society”. The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, of which Uganda is signatory, says, for example, that “any registration system for the print media shall not impose substantive restrictions on the right to freedom of expression”. Besides, any limitations must be clearly and narrowly defined – and not left open to multiple interpretations as is the case in the draft Bill.
Case for self-regulation
Minister Matsiko said it is only in journalism that an individual will wake up, without any training, and start practising as a journalist. Such a profession therefore needs legislation to help it keep standards.
But others, including a regulator from Ghana, one of the continent’s leaders when it comes to respecting media freedom disagree. “If you look at Article 19 [of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights], journalism cannot be equated to law or medicine,” said Ghanaian Kabral Blay-Amihere at a May 31, 2010 roundtable discussion in Kampala. He was echoing a 1985 ruling by the Inter-American Court. “It is about expression of opinion. If the proposed law is passed, what will you do with citizen journalism, blogging, social media?” A veteran Ghanaian journalist, newspaper owner and former diplomat, Mr. Blay-Amihere is the chairman of the National Media Commission of Ghana.
At the April meeting, the minister said the increase in the number of media outlets, following liberalisation [of the communications sector in the early 1990s], has not been matched by laws and monitoring and supervisory mechanisms. Consequently, various interest groups hide under the guise of freedom of expression to publish material that endangers stability and national security.
“For any law to be proposed there must be a mischief that has to be cured,” Minister Matsiko told Saturday Monitor in a March 27 interview in response to a question about the need for changes to the press law. “It has been realised that after we liberalised the press, we have not had a responsible media and now we are looking at how we can regulate the media. We are talking of a media which will not incite people in its reporting. For instance, in the burning of Kasubi tombs, the media rushed into conclusions instead of asking what happened. They were quoting a boda boda rider who was not even at the scene.”
Be that as it may, Justice Kanyeihamba said, there is no need for any new law because the current legal regime is adequate. “Our problem is that we have laws that we do not enforce and so we come up with new ones,” he said.
Industry players acknowledge the local media’s weaknesses such as inaccurate reporting and unethical practices, but they would rather the government let the profession find solutions. “We should be discussing how to enhance the self-regulation mechanisms the media have rather than control the media,” said Ms. Rosemary Kemigisha, an editor at the Uganda Human Rights Commission. “Let us focus on promotion of ethical and professional standards.”
The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights says self-regulation is the best way to resolve disputes between the consumers of media and the practitioners. Journalists in Uganda are already trying to regulate themselves through the Independent Media Council, formed in 2006 by 42 media organisations.
What others say
On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, Human Rights Watch released a report on media freedom in Uganda and decried the sustained crackdown on journalists especially those operating in up-country stations. Titled A Media Mine Field: Increased Threats to Freedom of Expression in Uganda in Uganda, the 60-page report says that supporters of the ruling NRM party, including government officials, are threatening and intimidating journalists to curb criticism of the government. It is this reality that gets many, even outside Uganda, concerned about the draft Bill.
Article 19, an organisation that advocates freedom of expression around the world, urged the Ugandan authorities in March to “consider a fundamentally different approach to the regulation of the print media and journalism”.
In an April 5 letter to the Ugandan Parliament, the Committee to Protect Journalists said: “We believe the bill would severely hamper the operations of newspapers and damage the country’s press freedom credentials … The substantive restrictions placed on newspapers through new licensing rules contravene Uganda’s commitments to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
The Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence, Dr. Peter Mwesige, pointed to the dangers of passing the Bill in his blog on the CPJ website. “The notion of irresponsible journalism, which the government says it is trying to address, is quite loaded,” he wrote. “The government often invokes it to refer to journalism that makes those in power uncomfortable either because it is too critical or because it challenges their authority.”
The government has made clear it will go ahead with the amendment Bill. “Of course, we are going to amend the Press and Journalist Act,” Minister Matsiko said at the April forum. “I am here to listen to concerns so as to input and enrich the Bill. I urge you not to completely disregard the proposals being brought before you. We all agree we need to regulate, but how is the question. I need input.”
Accordingly, the issues raised in the various fora will be included in a detailed memorandum to the Cabinet. Should the government ignore the memorandum, as many fear it will, there is another course for opponents of the changes.
Justice Kanyeihamba said: You may pass the law, but you will be sued to say the new law is not in conformity with the Constitution or other laws. Does the government want to subject itself to that?
The passing of former President Godfrey Binaisa presented a simple test to the Ugandan media – and I am afraid many failed it.
First thing to note is that the event had been expected by all editors for some time now. It did not take them by surprise. There have been false alarms alleging the guy’s death over the last couple of years. It therefore follows that all Ugandan media houses certainly had the opportunity to prepare their best for this event, and therefore what we have seen is the very best they are capable of. It is like Nelson Mandela dies today – the South African (and indeed world) media will be well prepared to serve their very best in terms of content, backgrounders and design.
I think Daily Monitor did well with Fred Guweddeko’s series. What I don’t know is when they commissioned him to compile it. If they didn’t and just accepted it from him when he offered it on hearing that Binaisa was dead, then there are some risks there.
Of course Guweddeko is a great resource for he loves research. But I have had to manage him over several projects for over a decade. (By the way Fred is my childhood friend as we grew up together for the very early part of our lives at Kitala, Entebbe road, so I qualify to comment on him fairly and sympathetically. Among other things, he is one of the most fantastic footballers SMACK Kisubi ever had. His father was an ace fighter pilot who once commanded the Uganda Airforce, etc… From university, while I went for greener pastures in Kenya, he did the patriotic thing and followed Museveni to the bush. Of course the military genes run in his blood.) When you talk to him today, you realise the bush war and subsequent governance left an indelible mark on him. He knows many things he may not say because of ‘military discipline’, and uses research to bring them out…
Guweddeko has very strong political views, and his research can sometimes concentrate on those facts that support his viewpoint. This is only human. So an editor who commissions him needs to crosscheck some of the very interesting things he submits. I am not saying it was necessary in the Binaisa case, nor am I saying it was not done. Guweddeko does NOT lie. But he sometimes concentrates too much on some very interesting facts.
Other than Guweddeko’s pieces, I did not perceive any signs of preparedness in the media for Binaisa’s highly anticipated death. I must admit that being out of the country, I read all my Ugandan newspapers on the Internet, so there might be some good works that I missed if they were not posted on net.
If only for our selfish industry reasons, did any media mention that Godfrey was father to the late Charles Binaisa, co-founder of the Uganda Journalists Association? (Charles and Kintu Musoke hastily set up UJA to meet Kwame Nkrumah on a trip to Ghana and they needed some status to describe themselves with.) Charles later became a top editor before dying in an accident in 1970.
Again for selfish reasons, has Major Roland Kakooza Mutale been interviewed? He had the greatest run-ins with the Binaisa administration. Then he switched from being a Binaisa critic to his strongest supporter, exposing plots to assassinate or overthrow the man, with verbatim quotes of the conspirators. “Binaisa kasokanga aggula bifulukwa lero yagguddewo ekirimu abantu” (Binaisa is so fond of storming abandoned houses but today he has stormed one with occupants in..) Mutale quoted Muwanga verbatim, allegedly in a midnight meeting at Katwe.
The political writers, at a time of approaching elections and constitutional referenda in Kenya and Zanzibar, surely ought to have revisited the umbrella that Binaisa defended so fiercely, and went down defending. For Kenya is under an umbrella, and Zanzibar has just voted to adopt an umbrella, UK is under the same, whatever fancy new names these umbrellas are called.
At a time when the Buganda question is back – did it ever go away – to disturb the ruling party at the coming elections, Binaisa’s stances on the Buganda question are also worth analysing. In 1979 and 1980, he was widely supported by non-Baganda largely for his perceived anti-Buganda stance. Today, Museveni is facing a situation of the Buganda vote since his fights with the Kabaka became public last year. People like Binaisa and John Nagenda (and myself if I mattered) say that Mengo and Buganda are not the same thing, though to attempt to separate Kabaka and Buganda is an exercise in futility. Can someone like Nagenda or some Makerere scholar have been approached by the media to make a strong analysis of how Binaisa saw Buganda and how, had he not been militarily interrupted, he could have put the Buganda matter to rest (of course after he helped formalize the mess Obote created in the sixties).
Veterans like Bidandi and Kintu Musoke are very much around, how much have they been utilised by the media to understand Binaisa? Then there are former journalists from the fifties and sixties who are still living with their mental faculties still intact. There is one Kavuma now working for Swanair, and AD Lubowa who is in retirement at his house at Maya, a few kilometres on Masaka Road. These were senior journalists, not simple reporters in their day. Couldn’t they be better interviewees on Binaisa than some of today’s politicians?
Binaisa was largely (seen as) a Nyerere project, which many saw as preparing ground for the return of Obote. In fact it was Binaisa’s not living up to those expectations that he was deposed. Which makes me wonder why Museveni backed the removal of Binaisa, the latter having demoted him notwithstanding, when the umbrella politics was what the Movement was really about later. By helping the UPC remove Binaisa, the stage was set for the December 1980 elections that were to end in five years of bloodshed. Why didn’t Museveni prefer the UNLF to remain and he and others compete for power on individual merit? These are some questions political analysts could have been asked to handle. But back to the Nyerere hand, how much of this did the media give to the readers, especially the young who do not know? Does the average Ugandan media consumer know that the Tanzanian president was the most powerful man in Kampala for a few years, and both presidents and opposition leaders were always shuttling between Entebbe and Dar es Salaam for ‘consultation’ before any important steps were taken? Are there lessons from that era during which Binaisa ‘ruled’ Uganda? Was Binaisa ever a president of Uganda, when Lule was removed for disagreeing with UPC and ended up under House Arrest in Dar es Salaam and Binaisa was removed when it became apparent that he was planning to block Obote from returning from Dar es Salaam? Did Museveni play a similar role for Rwanda as Nyerere played for Uganda? How then did Kigali and Kampala relations fall to a level of war (in Kisangani) after so much sacrifice Uganda made for Kigali? Are there recent parallels? From the Bianisa era, from the day he lost power, why is it that Uganda has quarreled with all its neighbours (especially under Museveni) EXCEPT Tanzania? Why can’t a cantankerous Uganda ever quarrel with Tanzania? Is it just natural love between the two that they can’t quarrel or does the answer lie in the Binaisa era? Do many people know that Uganda and Tanzania had a lengthy border dispute that only ended last year but one, but it never made it to the press or political speeches, and was handled by surveyors from the two countries? Could the same differences be equally handled harmoniously with Kenya? Remember Migingo?
There are several things the Binaisa passing could have brought to the fore, ESPECIALLY as the event was widely expected and the media had all the time to delve and wander. And the journalists did not have to know or write these stories. They only had to ask the right people to talk. What happened to that key aspect of the job called ‘sourcing’? If what we saw was the best the Ugandan media is capable of, then Mwalimu Mwesige’s have a lot more to do while the tired and faint hearted Buwembo’s take off, far away from the heat, to drink Kilimanjaro beer in Dar es Salaam’s sweaty pubs.
If you are a journalist working for independent media in Uganda, the police have probably summoned you for questioning and possibly even charged you in the courts. If not, you know colleagues who have. Over the years, it is newspaper and radio journalists who have faced the wrath of a duplicitous government – it preaches free speech and gleefully muzzles independent media at the same time. Now things are changing. The government is looking farther afield.
The police last week called in Mr. Timothy Kalyegira, owner of The Uganda Record, an online publication. The state is interested in his reports suggesting that al-Shabaab may have claimed responsibility for the deadly 7/11 bombings in Kampala but that does not make it true that they did the deed. In Mr. Kalyegira’s own words, his website makes the “insinuation or suggestion … that this could have been a state-orchestrated crime”. For that, detectives have not only interrogated him repeatedly, they have also searched his home and taken away his computer, his cell phone and other stuff. Why a man’s laptop and phone should be carried away for expressing an opinion defies logic. But not entirely. The investigators’ working theory seems to be that Mr. Kalyegira is working in concert with more sinister forces to trash the image of the Government of the Republic of Uganda. They want to know who his correspondents are.
“We are monitoring media by whatever description,” the officer in charge of the Media Crimes Department in the Uganda Police Force told this correspondent. Commissioner of Police Simon Kuteesa added: “It is not just the police. All national security organs are interested in media [content].”
Sure, but anyone who has read Mr. Kalyegira’s writings over the years would not bother with him, for the man loves being contrarian on just about every subject of national import. Besides, other Ugandans have also raised, although quietly, views similar to Mr. Kalyegira’s regarding the bombings. And after 9/11 in the United States, some Americans alleged that their government was behind the tragedy so as to find a reason to attack oil-rich Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and take control of the oil.
By going after Mr. Kalyegira, the government is lending credence to his claims. It is also helping spread them because now people are heading to the Uganda Record website to read the postings for themselves. If the government has nothing to hide, so the argument goes, it would let Mr. Kalyegira be. It would let his views, which he says are inspired by some unnamed Seer, compete with other views out there. He predicted apocalypse for the Great Lakes Region in 2008. No apocalypse came. Years ago the government tried unsuccessfully to shut down Radio Katwe. The website went on to run stories that make Mr. Kalyegira’s opinion pale completely in comparison. As of this week, that website has not been updated in more than 18 months. It is “disappearing” naturally.
The most significant aspect here is that the government is getting interested in what Ugandans are writing online – and it is doing something about it. The passing, in the immediate aftermath of the 7/11 bombings, of The Regulation of Interception of Communications Bill, will likely embolden the government to go after online work more aggressively. It will snoop around more, hacking into people’s emails in the name of ensuring national security.
Media observers in Uganda argue that the Kalyegira case is just the beginning. There will be more government interest in online content as more Ugandans start using the World Wide Web spurred by increased access to electricity and the presence of fibre optic technology, which is speeding up Internet connectivity and driving down prices. According to the Uganda Communications Commission, there were 27,590 Internet subscriptions with an estimated number of users standing at 2.8 million (9% of the population) in 2009 compared to 15,500 subscriptions and an estimated 1 million users in 2007. These numbers must be soaring given the raging market wars amongst service providers.
“The government has not had a systematic way of dealing with online content,” said Mr. J.B. Mayiga, the co-ordinator of the Uganda Media Development Foundation, a Kampala-based media training and advocacy body. “But the Kalyegira case maybe a precursor for something more concrete – a more specific law – because the government is not happy with people expressing themselves freely at any forum.”
Ms. Rachel Mugarura is one of Uganda’s foremost bloggers and says the events of last week may not readily have any chilling effect on online users. “I have no concerns,” she said. “There is very little political debate in the Ugandan blogosphere and there is no consistency.” She added that for many Ugandans, mostly younger urbanites, “blogging is an escape, so it is a little frivolous”. (Make your own assessment by visiting a website that aggregates Ugandan blogs).
For now, there may be merit in the government going after citizens’ online work in search of terrorists, and possibly paedophiles. But there is no merit in questioning someone and threatening him with sedition charges for openly expressing his views. The government is better off working efficiently to deliver goods and services, to respect human rights, to observe rule of law and to generally act in a manner that does not leave citizens ascribing evil to it.
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The chaos and shame of the primary elections of Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement, which climaxed into the delegates conference at Namboole over the weekend, gave local journalists a lot of news to cover.
Then the journalists decided to become part of the news. The Daily Monitor reported on September 13 that some journalists covering the NRM’s delegates conference asked for and received Shs 4 million shillings (USD1,800) from party officials. A party official confirmed he had indeed given the journalists money after they confronted him with a list of those who were covering the proceedings.
Several young journalists who believe it is wrong for journalists to accept money from the people they cover have called me to express their outrage about the actions of some of their colleagues who covered the NRM’s conference. One described how journalists were fighting for money just like the delegates who had been bused in from all over the country. “It was so shameful,” she said. She was also concerned that we were about to see a repeat of the 2006 election campaigns where journalists used to register with different party officials to get paid for doing what their organisations pay them to do.
The practice of journalists accepting money from sources has come to be known as brown envelope journalism in many parts of Africa. Elsewhere it is sometimes called cheque book journalism. It is a deeply rooted and institutionalised practice in Uganda.
This practice takes several forms. In some cases, journalists work for media houses that have clear (but obviously questionable) policies that require sources to pay for transport (and sometimes meals) for the journalists who cover them. In others, journalists approach sources or event organisers and boldly ask for money before they provide any coverage. Others sometimes go back to the sources after they have published their stories and either hint on expecting a reward for a job well done or directly ask for their payoff. Many event organisers have now decided to set aside a budget for media coverage. After a press conference or such related media event, they will ask all the journalists present to sign for their envelopes.
These practices are generally considered unethical under both local and international journalism codes of ethics. According to Uganda’s statutory professional code of ethics, “No journalist shall solicit or accept bribes in an attempt to publish or suppress the publication of a story.”
But some Ugandan journalists do not consider accepting a transport refund from a press conference organiser as bribery. They call it “facilitation.” I am yet to attend a media workshop in Uganda where journalists can reach some consensus on what is acceptable and what is clearly unethical.
Mainstream media houses such as The Monitor and The New Vision have in recent months published reminders about the integrity of their journalism and reminded the public that they don’t have to pay journalists in return for coverage. Indeed, these media houses provide their journalists with transport (and sometimes meal allowances) for covering different events.
Some journalists from smaller media houses rationalise their willingness to accept money from sources on the grounds that they don’t get any transport and related allowances from their organizations. Others blame it on poor pay.
But the list of journalists who have signed for brown envelopes or quietly received money from sources suggests that the practice is not limited only to poorly paid journalists or those from smaller media houses.
It doesn’t matter what media house a journalist works for. Accepting money from sources degrades the integrity of journalism.
Some of the young journalists who have called me to express their concern about this practice have asked if we can’t organise some training workshop to address the issue. But too many workshops have covered the question of ethics, including accepting money from sources, and the practice is still with us.
What we need are stronger self-regulatory mechanisms within the industry. Local media houses should emulate The Monitor and The New Vision and routinely remind the public that their journalists are not allowed to accept money from the sources they cover.
ACME recently invited editors, regulators, training institutions and representatives of media associations to a consultative workshop to discuss a draft of proposed media guidelines for the coverage of the 2011 elections. One of the principles in those guidelines relates to bribery and corruption among journalists. The idea was that media houses should develop these guidelines in a participatory process, sign on, and share them with the public. Journalists and their media houses would then be held accountable against those very standards they have set themselves.
Under such guidelines and the integrity notices that Vision and Monitor have shared recently, journalists who are found to have accepted money from sources should be shown the door or face some serious sanctions and this should be publicized.
We also need more media owners who understand that it’s their business to provide for their journalists. They should pay their journalists well if they care about the quality of their final product.
Obviously, the question of ethics in journalism is a complex one. It involves the personal conscience and values of the journalist, the values of the organisation as well as those of society.
Some have argued that envelope journalism is a reflection of the corruption in our broader sociopolitical system. But this does not absolve the journalist. We should hold ourselves against higher standards than those by which we hold the people we cover.
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The High Court in Kampala has dismissed a counter suit filed by the Ugandan government against the Central Broadcasting Station (CBS), which was shut down in September 2009 on allegations of inciting violence.
On September 10 2009, the Broadcasting Council shut down and revoked the licence of CBS for allegedly using it to “mobilise and incite the public and sowing seeds of hatred among Ugandans” leading to the death of more than 27 people during the riots that followed a standoff between the central government and the seat of the Buganda kingdom. CBS is owned by the Buganda Kingdom.
Over 100 CBS employees later filed a lawsuit asking court to declare the revocation of radio station’s licence “unconstitutional, illegal, unlawful, null, and void”. The employees also sought about Shs 3 billion in compensation, arguing that the “unjustifiable” closure had rendered them jobless.
However in February 2010, the government also filed a counter suit seeking to compel CBS to pay aggravated damages for allegedly mobilising and inciting the public into violence and rebelling against lawful authority.
On August 20, High Court Judge Vincent Zehurikize dismissed the government’s suit with no costs to CBS. He said that authority to take disciplinary action against any media house lies with the Media Council and not the government.
The judge ruled, “The fact that the government received complaints from the general public and security agencies does not give it a right to sue on behalf of the citizens but it can institute criminal proceedings against those who breached the law as a way to protect the citizens.”
The ruling paves way for the continuation of the case in which the CBS employees want the government to reopen the radio station and also pay them Shs 3billion in compensation in lost earnings.
Mr Frederick Ssempebwa, the lawyer representing CBS employees, told the media outside court that “government has powers to license for example, but those powers don’t include bringing a case for compensation against CBS.”
Mr Ssempebwa added that the suit filed by the CBS employees will resume in October this year. “The employees still have their case for compensation; that one we shall argue,” he said.
CBS radio was one of the four stations that were shut down in September 2009 after the dramatic standoff between the central government and the Buganda Kingdom.
The other three stations, Suubi FM, Radio Sapienta, Radio Two (Akaboozi Kubiri), were later opened with stern warnings after they apologised for the misconduct of their employees. They were also forced to dismiss some presenters and journalists that the government complained against.
Critics and human rights defenders accused the Broadcasting Council of acting on the orders of a government that was besieged and condemned the decision to shut down the radio stations as a gross infringement on freedom of expression.
The closure of the four radio stations is reported to have had a chilling effect on journalists from other media houses, who were reported to be exercising undue self-censorship. Others claimed receiving orders from their managers or radio station owners not to focus on the Buganda kingdom and other controversial political stories.
In January a Cabinet sub-committee formed to address the CBS closure came up with 12 conditions for reopening the radio station. CBS management was required to apologise to the government “through the Broadcasting Council”, relocate its studio from the Kabaka’s palace (Bulange), withdraw the court case brought by employees against the government, dismiss journalists and presenters who allegedly participated in inciting the September riots, and follow the minimum broadcasting standards.
You are an editor under deadline pressure and declining sales. The production manager says tomorrow’s paper is getting late, but the sales manager has just expressed grave concern at the low sales attributed to weak headlines over the past two weeks. What you need is a damn hot story to buy you some breathing space so you can refocus on strategy.
Suddenly you get a phone call from your news editor that a cabinet minister suffering a bit of malaria has vomited all over himself at a restaurant where your staff photographer was also having lunch and he has taken some clear shots already. Have you got the story you wanted, complete with pictures to tell the one thousand words?
Okay, it is not a minister throwing up, but a ‘philanthropist’ flashing three million dollars at the press. How would you have treated this story, with hindsight of course?
One option would be to ignore the story, in the interest of public decency. But you know that the competition will run with it, and the sales manager would never listen to your ethical arguments of not highlighting pervert conduct or protection of morality. And in any case, the splashing of unexplained wealth may be revolting to upright citizens but maybe some new readers you want to catch don’t find Ezra’s conduct repugnant.
So you have decided to run the story anyway. How do you ensure it does not leave you an accessory to the promotion of indecent conduct?
First and foremost is the need to question the genuineness of the dollar notes, just in case we are not talking merely of flashing but currency forgery on grand scale. If you are in phone contact with the reporter, call or text him to ask for proof that the dollars are genuine. If he is an owner of millions of dollars, Ezra should have no problem peeling off a few notes to be taken for verification. In any case Emin Pasha Hotel should have a detector, which many small shops in town also do.
But the most basic question to put to Ezra then would be, ‘why don’t you just show us a bank statement?’ It would certainly be more convenient for such an important man like him than to drag kilos and kilos of currency. But most important, the statement would have a third party authority to confirm that Ezra is not broke. There was no stamp on the stacks of cash to prove who they belonged to in the first place. The cash could be in the custody of anybody who is not its owner.
Even if Ezra would not answer those questions satisfactorily, the journalists would have done their bit and not appeared to be giving free advertisement to someone who is fighting his enemies or rivals, as he himself said.
In the event of Ezra’s non-cooperation, there would be several questions to ask other people. The media did well to check with Bank of Uganda who confirmed there is no law against flashing any sum of money – just like there is no law stopping a sickly minister from vomiting on himself in a restaurant. They also did well to talk to the police.
But they should also have talked to the hotel management and asked if Ezra had declared the money in his possession. This is the hotel where the British premier stayed during Chogm, if I am not mistaken. In these days of global terrorism and anti-money laundering measures, Emin Pasha management would tell the media the truth, so as not to appear to be a weak link in the anti-terror war.
Since the human interest angle of wealth was apparently irresistible, the media should have asked how long Ezra had booked at the hotel – after calling such attention to himself and displaying the huge sums of cash he was carrying, there was no further need to withhold client information in this case. How much had he paid? Using which means? How many rooms was he occupying? What extras had he taken?
These questions would not only enrich the human interest angle, they would also throw some light on the authenticity of the ‘tycoon’. Kampala is a city where every year hundreds of meetings are held in offices hired only for an hour or two by briefcase NGOs and businessmen to impress foreign donors who are passing through town.
What was the office for Uganda Appendicitis Sufferers Association an hour ago in a prime city location transforms into Uganda Society for the Protection of Lizards and Crocodiles. Did Emin Pasha really host Mr Ezra for several days indeed?
Finally, while running the story, would you as an editor put some statement disassociating the paper from the conduct of the subject being covered? Why do radio stations have to always say, “The views expressed on this show are not necessarily those of this station or its management”?
How real is the danger of the public assuming that you subscribe to whatever you publish? It is understandable if we cover rebel Joseph Kony’s atrocities. But what if he invited you to witness an execution?
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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?
Rwanda’s laws on genocide ideology and divisionism are hampering freedom of speech and compromising journalists’ roles of informing the public because they are vague, a new report by Amnesty International says.
The laws on “genocide ideology” and “sectarianism”, more commonly known as “divisionism”, were put in place after the 1994 genocide incited by hate speech and radio, to encourage unity and restrict speech that could promote hatred. More than 800,000 people died in the genocide.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by President Paul Kagame has been in power since it halted the genocide and has since tightly controlled political space, civil society and the media.
The Human rights watchdog notes that while prohibiting hate speech is a legitimate aim, the government of Rwanda is using the laws to violate human rights especially freedom of speech.
“The law calls for punishment of: 'Any person who disseminates genocide ideology in public through documents, speeches, pictures, and media or any other means,' the report says. "This provision leaves unclear whether journalists could be prosecuted for reporting on cases of alleged 'genocide ideology'. This lack of clarity may infringe journalists’ rights to freedom of expression and compromise their professional duty to inform the public.”
Both national and international media critical of the Rwanda government have been affected by the laws according to the report titled Safer to Stay Silent: The Chilling Effect of Rwanda's Laws on 'Genocide Ideology' and 'Sectarianism'
Journalists, the report says, have been rebuked in media outlets close to the government for drawing attention to deficiencies in the above laws.
In the run up to the August 9 presidential elections, the government limited criticism in the country by opposition politicians and journalists. Two opposition candidates were arrested and charged, among other things, with "genocide ideology". A newspaper editor was also arrested on the same charge.
In July, an editor of the Kinyarwanda-language weekly Umurabyo was arrested over allegations that the paper had published stories "inciting the public to disobey," "articles related to division and ethnicity," and "rumors that can cause disturbance in the country,"
In 2009, the report adds, “A Media Law placed undue restrictions on press freedom, and journalists critical of the government remain barred from government press conferences. Newspapers were shut down by the Rwandan High Media Council (HMC), a body closely linked to the ruling party. Restrictions on freedom of expression and association, compounded by ambiguous “genocide ideology” and “sectarianism” laws, as well as those that criminalize “insulting the President”, have a cumulative effect in silencing dissent in Rwandan society,” reads the report.
On 25 April 2009, the BBC Kinyarwanda service was suspended by the Rwandan government after it relayed a programme discussing forgiveness after the 1994 genocide. The show also aired an interview with Faustin Twagiramungu, a former presidential candidate, opposing attempts to have all Hutus apologise for the genocide as not all had participated in it.
The government argued that the broadcast incited “divisionism” and constituted genocide denial.
Earlier in 2006, the BBC and Voice of America (VOA) were accused of disseminating “genocide ideology”.
The human rights watchdog is calling upon the Rwanda government to make a clear public commitment to freedom of expression and publicly agree to review past convictions under “genocide ideology”, “divisionism” or related laws.
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