Presidential musings on media freedoms

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?


About the Author: Rodney Muhumuza is a senior reporter with Daily Monitor in Kampala. He was recently an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow at the Kansas City Star in the United States.

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