On Friday, the Centre for Public Interest Law (CEPIL), in cooperation with the Human Rights Network for Journalists and the Eastern Africa Media Institute, a tripartite initiative known as the Partnership for a Free and Independent Media, filed a Constitutional Petition. This petition, recorded as Constitutional Petition number 9 of 2014, (see attached) challenges the Press and Journalists Act, Cap 105, on the grounds that the law violates the freedoms of speech, expression, the press and other media, as contained in Article 29 of the Constitution, as well as other key provisions that provide for protection of fundamental human rights. The Partnership believes that this law violates key principles of freedom of the press and other media, and restricts the Fourth Estate in Uganda in a way that is not justifiable in a free and democratic society.
The petition identifies a number of areas where the Act is in contravention of the Constitution, including unduly restrictive licensing conditions for journalists; unclear, inconsistent and overly broad powers of the Minister and the Media Council to punish journalists; a code of ethics that holds journalists liable for disseminating “incorrect or untrue” news or allegations and requires them to disclose their sources if there is “an overriding consideration of public interest”.
One area of particular concern is the licensing requirements for journalists. The petition states that, “section 26 [of the Act] is inconsistent with article 29(1) and 40(2)(a) of the Constitution in so far as it provides for application to the Council in order for a person to practice journalism.” The petition further goes on to say that “sections 28 and 29…restrict the right of a person to practice Journalism unless the person has enrolled, acquired an accreditation card, and complied with all the terms the
Council has set and has complied with all orders under the Act.” Such restrictions, taken together with other sections of the Act, unduly limit the ability of journalists to practice their craft and create the potential for politicalpersecution of journalists who hold divergent views from those in the licensing authorities.
The dangers of the licensing process are compounded by the procedures by which complaints can be instituted against journalists (sections 31 and 32), the procedures by which journalists can be suspended (sections 34 and 39), the way in which the Council implements its own orders made against a journalist (section 35), the ability of the Disciplinary Committee to institute proceedings of its own motion against journalists without adequate guidelines or controls (Section 40(2)), and a complaints procedure against journalists that fails to meet basic principles of natural justice (Sections 31, 32, 33). The overall impact of these sections of the law is to compromise severely the ability of journalists to practice their craft due to fear of persecution from the state.
Other elements of the Act that violate the Constitution include its requirement that journalists join an association to practice journalism (sections 27(1) and 28), the requirement that journalists pay a fee to get or renew a license to practice journalism (sections 27(2), 16(1), 27(1), and 29(2)), and the requirement that what is published is not contrary to public morality (section 6(a)).
Finally, the definition of practicing journalism (section 27(5)) is far too broad and does not even require a link with a mass media outlet. It would therefore subject most individuals working for civil society, all academics, and even students or employees of the telephone company who collected information for the purposes of compiling a telephone book, to the authority of the Minister and Media Council. Mass media and electronic media as defined in section 1 is overly broad, as the former not only includes electronic media but also posters and banners while the latter includes any communication to the public by any electronic apparatus, thus including every website, regardless of its content. All these would therefore be treated as persons practicing journalism and would be required to register and obtain licenses at the penalty of imprisonment on default.
Overall, the Act violates the freedom of the press and other media, as guaranteed in the Constitution, and provides an extremely restrictive environment for journalists that will compromise their ability to carry out their duty in a professional way, free of fear from persecution by the state.
The Centre for Public Interest Law
5th Floor, Social Security House, Kampala
0312-106-022; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.cepiluganda.org