By Grace Natabaalo
The Electoral Commission has released a set of rules for the media ahead of the February 18 polls and strongly urged journalists to abide by them.
The code of conduct, developed by the electoral body together with the Media Council and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Uganda, was issued to journalists on Wednesday, eight days to the polling day.
Speaking during the launch of the code, EC Chairman Badru Kiggundu said the media should be aware of its power and how it uses it during the election period.
He said, “You should always be aware of the power of the written/broadcast word. This code will seek to remind you to ensure that this immense power that you wield is used constructively and that the media makes rather than breaks the electoral processes.”
The rules, compiled into a pocketsize booklet, emphasise the role of the media in ensuring free, fair and democratic elections.
The code of conduct seeks to address various issues such truth, fairness and credibility, and warns the media against publishing information that could cause public disorder or pose a threat to national security.
Other areas covered are independence of media from any players in the electoral process, partiality, inaccuracies, information manipulation, bribery, conflict of interest, sectarianism and equity.
Ms Birgit Gerstenberg, the UNOCHR representative said the code of conduct is based on the premise of freedom of expression and fundamental freedoms already guaranteed by the Constitution and various human rights instruments.
She noted, however, that the same guaranteed freedoms had limits that the media need to observe. “The allowed limits are the respect of the right or reputation of others, or to protect national security, public order, the morals and the public health in society,” she said. “The media code for elections reminds media professional on their duty to respect the limits in an especially important period of society and state, which are the elections.”
Mr Kiggundu warned media houses against going against the rules as they “yearn to outcompete each other” during the coverage of elections especially on announcement of results.
“If you become errant, you cannot survive,” he said, adding that penalties will be drawn from the various laws of Uganda from which the code of conduct was extracted. The laws include the Constitution, the Electronic Media Act, the Presidential Elections Act, and, the Press and Journalist Act.
Kiggundu cautioned the media on coverage of results and candidates with alternative tally centres, saying only the electoral body has the right to announce the final results. The media, he said, could transmit results from a particular polling station but he clarified that they could not “declare the final result”.
Opposition candidate Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and the Interparty Cooperation (IPC) has declared his campaign team would announce its own results as part of their strategy to forestall rigging.
“It is only the Electoral Commission that can publish and declare results,” Kiggundu said. “What we don’t want is an Ivory Coast situation. I have done my part; I will leave the rest to the law.”
He said accredited journalists will have full access to the tallying centre where results from around the country will be broadcast using the newly acquired Electronic Results Transmission and Dissemination System. The results will be declared within 48 hours.
The Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), Peter Mwesige, welcomed the code of conduct.
“Although it has it has come a little late in the game, it still is a valuable addition to other efforts to encourage free expression accompanied by responsibility as the country goes to the polls,” he said.
ACME released guidelines for media coverage of elections in November following a participatory process that involved key players, including the Electoral Commission, media houses, media regulators, political parties, and civil society.
Those guidelines were meant to encourage the media to regulate themselves in accordance with international best practice in the coverage of elections.
Dr. Mwesige said while calls for media responsibility in the coverage of the elections were welcome, he was uncomfortable with threats of criminal sanctions against so-called errant journalists.
“The danger with pointing at laws, which are draconian, is that you risk smothering expression of opinion and dissemination of information that is critical for the public to make an informed decision come February 18,” he said.