ACME hosts international free speech advocates

Efforts to improve media freedoms in Uganda in the midst of proposed harsh changes to the media law and physical attacks on journalists gathered pace this week with the arrival in Kampala of an international free speech delegation.

“During the five-day visit, the International Task Force on Freedom of Expression in Uganda will meet with journalists, human rights defenders, government officials, and other civil society activists to convey their concerns regarding growing threats to freedom of expression in the lead-up to presidential and parliamentary elections early next year,” said Dr. Peter Mwesige, the executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence. ACME is hosting the delegation, led by Freedom House, a US-based global press freedom and freedom of expression watchdog.

The joint mission is made up of Ms. Ugonna Duru of the Media Foundation for West Africa; Mr. Kaitira Kandjii of the Media Institute of Southern Africa; Mr. Tom Rhodes of the Committee to Protect Journalists; Mr. Henry Maina of Article 19; and Ms. Courtney Radsch and Ms. Karin Karlekar of Freedom House.

During a breakfast meeting at the ACME offices on September 20 with leaders of journalists’ organisations, the delegation heard about the increasing potential for media freedoms to shrink further if the government passes the draft Press and Journalist (Amendment) Bill, 2010. Already, the government has taken advantage of the July 11 bombings in Kampala to rush through a wiretapping law, which could limit the ability of journalists to keep the confidentiality of crucial sources.

Other restrictive measures the government has recently adopted include the Media Centre’s requirement to have journalists get accreditation to cover President Museveni’s campaigns. That would not be a problem, the meeting heard. But the accreditation process would require journalists to submit information such as physical address, marital status, spouse’s name if married.

The recent murders of journalists and assaults have given the joint mission a more urgent feel. Two journalists were killed in central Uganda within days of each other last month. The killings were quickly followed by an assault on a photojournalist by a prominent businessman, who is also a senior official of the ruling party. The businessman has thus far refused to honour police summons for questioning. These incidents have raised fears of increased impunity. The meeting advised media organisations to offer more protection for their journalists and for police to investigate the murders quickly and thoroughly.

While the media want the government to guarantee their freedom to practice, the journalists were also reminded to clean their house. The meeting heard that many journalists were acting unprofessionally and unethically. A case in point was of journalists demanding and receiving money at the recently concluded ruling party primary elections in Kampala. Journalists’ associations promised to take co-ordinated action against their members who abuse the code of conduct.

Discussions, continuing throughout the week, will conclude with a press conference in Kampala on Thursday afternoon.

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