Ugandan journalists have been alarmed by a statutory instrument that Information Minister Namayanja Rose Nsereko issued last month.
Under Press and Journalists (Fees) Regulations, 2014 a journalist is required to pay Shs200,000 for a practising certificate and Shs100,000 for its annual renewal. A journalist is also required to pay Shs30,000 for a certificate of enrollment and Shs50,000 for entering the enrollment certificate on the the register of journalists.
Pius Muinganisa, the secretary of the Media Council, the statutory body that regulates journalism in Uganda, says the regulations are meant to effect the Press and Journalists Act, and to force journalists to “put their houses in order”.
“We have had no regulations to put things in order since the enactment of the law (in 1995),” Mr Muinganisa told me in a telephone interview. “The environment has changed.”
Jabweli Okello, a member of the Media Council, echoed similar views in a separate telephone interview.
“We have never had regulations since the law was passed,” he said. “This is the first time something is coming up.”
Of course the idea of enrollment and practising certificate fees is not new. In the late 1990s, journalists paid those fees, although the bill was footed by the media houses (especially the big ones).
But back then the fee for the practising certificate fee was Shs20,000 a year.
Talking about the spirit behind the new regulations, Mr Okello said “The media council has had the mandate but no bite. Under the regulations, the Media Council has been strengthened.” He added that journalists who are “professional have nothing to worry about”.
The way I see it though, journalists are not seeing the forest for the trees.
The real debate should not be on the new fees but on the law under which they have been imposed.
And it interesting that these new fees have come to light around the same time the Press and Journalists Act was challenged in the Constitutional Court by three local civil society groups led by the Centre for Public Interest Law (CEPIL) under a tripartite initiative called the Partnership for a Free and Independent Media.
Constitutional Petition No. 9 of 2014 challenges the law on the grounds that it “violates 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”.
One area that petition particularly singles out is on the licensing requirements for journalists. The petitioners argue that practice of applying to the Media Council for a practicing certificate and the requirement for practicing journalists to be enrolled violate the Constitution. The petition also challenges the requirement for journalists to pay for a renewal licence to practice journalism.
“The overall impact of these sections of the law is to compromise severely the ability of the journalists to practice their craft due to fear of persecution from the State,” the petition states.
Guess what? This important constitutional petition has not received any notable media coverage in Uganda from the same journalists who are now complaining about new fees imposed under the same draconian law that is being challenged.
The media must cover these issues of free expression and speech with the same energy that journalists expend on covering political and civil rights, including opposition demonstrations and court battles.
The author is ACME co-founder and executive director.