Proposed changes to Ugandan media law: Media, rights groups push back

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.”

The proposals

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.”

Looking ahead

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?

About the Author: Grace Natabaalo is a Programme Associate at the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME). She has previously worked as a reporter and Internet Sub-Editor at the Monitor in Kampala.

Grace Natabaalo

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

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