UGANDA: President asked to drop changes to media law

Thirty one media organisations across the world have penned a letter to Uganda President Yoweri Museveni asking him to withdraw proposed changes to the Ugandan media law.

The organisations under the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a global network of associations advocating for the freedom of expression, call on President Museveni to re-examine whether various Uganda media laws should remain on the books.

The most recent, the Proposed Amendment to Uganda’s Press and Journalist Act – Jan 29 2010, 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.

In the September 7 letter to the president, the members argue that the Bill threatens to undo years of press freedom under President’s Museveni’s regime.

“The Ugandan media have thrived under your government, scrutinizing public affairs, encouraging robust public debate, and exposing corruption and other forms of malfeasance. In that regard until recently Uganda was often cited as a good example of a vibrant media landscape in the region. The proposed Bill threatens to undo all this,” reads the letter in part.

What the new law proposes

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.

The IFEX members strongly object to the licensing of the newspapers saying it would create “an unnecessary administrative burden and would expand the potential for political bias that already exists by the required annual licensing of journalists under the current Press and Journalist Act”.

“Taken with the new proposals, Uganda’s legal regime would violate the basic principles of freedom of expression. It would amount to licensing the very freedoms that are guaranteed not only by Article 29 of the Ugandan Constitution, but as well as in international instruments…,” adds the letter.

Defining the technical standards for the production of news as the amendment bill proposes, amounts to excessive veering into the media industry by the government, the IFEX coalition letter reads.
“The essence of newspapers has always been their content, not their technical standards. Press freedom cannot be the preserve of only those with ‘adequate technical standards’, it adds.

The coalition calls on President Museveni to lead the way in protecting and promoting the essential human right to freedom of expression by ensuring the journalists are able to freely practice their profession.

“A first step would be to withdraw the proposed amendment to the Press and Journalist Act, followed by revisions of the existing laws to bring them into conformity with the Ugandan Constitution and international standards,” the letter says.

Read full letter here…


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