15 years ago, a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Study Group on ‘Parliament and the Media’, released recommendations on ways to enhance information flows and improve relationships between national legislative bodies and journalists. The association, to which Uganda is party, recommended that parliaments should “repeal legislation, rescind Standing Orders and/or publicly abandon their traditional authority to punish the media and others for offending the dignity of Parliament simply by criticism of the institution or its members.”
Additionally, the Study Group’s report stated: “Questions of eligibility for media access should be determined by the media itself. Parliaments should retain the right to suspend access for media representatives who violate Standing Orders or otherwise disrupt parliamentary proceedings.”
Since the release of that report in 2003, the Ugandan Parliament has made significant changes to its management of media access to the House. Primarily, it has a strong and established public relations and information office, it has allowed the live broadcast of proceedings in the plenary, and it has increased access to parliamentary reports, research and the Speaker’s office.
While the relationship between Parliament and the media in Uganda can be at times quite strained, the two have benefited from a symbiotic association. It therefore came as a shock to many journalists accredited to cover Parliament to learn of a letter penned by the Clerk, Mrs Jane Kibirige, asking editors to replace the institution’s long-serving beat reporters.
The letter reads in part:
… the Parliamentary Commission, has in the interest of balanced media coverage of the Parliament, made a decision to the effect that all reporters who have been covering Parliament for more five years be replaced with effect from 1st May 2015. This is therefore, to request that you arrange for a replacement of all parliamentary reporters from your organization, who have been covering Parliament since the year 2009.
The names of 51 current and past parliamentary reporters were listed and the Clerk requested for replacements to be availed to the Department of Communication and Public Affairs as soon as possible.
Members of the Uganda Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA) quickly united in outrage at the letter. According to them, there was no justification for such action. Matters involving media standards should be left to the media, they insisted.
In an emergency general assembly held on Thursday morning, UPPA gave the Commission until Monday 16 March to withdraw the letter or it would seek legal redress.
Ms Agnes Nandutu, president of UPPA, was surprised that the association was not consulted on the matter before official communication was sent.
“This is just an ambush. We didn’t know anything. We don’t know the origin,” she says.
Several Members of Parliament spoke in defense of the media when the letter was made public. Adding to their concerns a day later, was the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Mr Jacob Oulanyah. He rubbished the demands of the Clerk’s letter, said they were of no consequence and advised that they should be handled as such.
“This letter should be treated as a letter, but its command should be treated as no command. Its effect should be treated as no effect,” he told journalists.
UPPA celebrated. Mr Oulanyah’s comments, some members say, are evidence that the Parliamentary Commission had overstepped its mark.
The Uganda Parliamentary Press Association has received support from some sections of the public, who have been quick to note, primarily on social media, that the functions of the Commission do not entail regulation of what kind of journalists can cover the House.
According to the Administration of Parliament Act the Commission is in charge of appointments, promotions and discipline of people who hold public office in Parliament, review of Standing Orders, training, security, recommending allowances and privileges for MPs, and the provision of a parliamentary reporting services and budgeting. It is also mandated “to do such other things as may be necessary for the well-being of the members and staff of Parliament.”
The case for mandatory beat rotation
On the opposite end of the social media debate are those who insist that the Commission’s function, notwithstanding, there is need to address its core concern about longevity on the parliamentary beat and the impact on balanced reporting.
Mr Wafula Oguttu, the Leader of the Opposition and member of the Parliamentary Commission, stunned many media watchers when in a post on his Facebook page he defended the replacement of long-serving reporters. The former Daily Monitor Managing Director wrote: “… I am a bit surprised that our editors see no problem in keeping reporters in the same position and desk for over twenty years running! I would not do that.”
There was a general assumption that given his past profile Mr Oguttu would side with UPPA.
Like the Leader of the Opposition, Ms Helen Kawesa, parliament’s Public Relations Manager, says rotation of the reporters is necessary because of slipping professional standards.
“There have been some people who have become a bit careless in their reporting due to the fact that they’ve been there for so long and they’ve lost the professional edge,” she says.
The response of media managers on the action of the Parliamentary Commission was unanimous. They insist that regulation of journalists in Parliament should be left to the media or independent actors. They say that they are managing issues of professionalism internally and strive for impartial coverage of all public institutions, including the legislature.
News editors react
Mr Henry Ochieng, Political Editor of Daily Monitor, says the blanket replacement of journalists who have covered the House for more than five years would be detrimental to the reporting of legislative affairs.
“Like in any profession, journalists get better with experience. They get a deep understanding of issues. Having young people will leave both the public and media houses at a disadvantage because they don’t know how it (Parliament) works,” he observes.
He adds: “Across the world, the most respected journalists have been covering Parliament for 20 to 30 years. They have an intimate understanding of politics and the issues in parliament. Institutional memory is an asset.”
Mr Richard Kavuma, the editor of The Observer, advises, “If parliament has legitimate complaints against specific journalists, it should address them case by case. Otherwise, if this policy is allowed to stand, it will mean that today’s brilliant journalists in parliament will be locked out tomorrow.”
At New Vision it is regular practice for editors to encourage beat rotation in order to avoid unethical behaviour. The paper’s political editor, Mr Felix Osike says, “There may be a few cases of journalists getting fraternised with sources. You get used to a source you cover the source and not the news. This needs to change, but at the discretion of the media houses.”
For parliamentary reporters however, the Clerk’s letter hints at growing disagreement between MPs and journalists on the role of the media in covering the House.
Mr Yasiin Mugerwa, a Daily Monitor reporter and author of the weekly column ‘Parliament Watch’, reveals that the Commission has in the past complained about articles he has written that are critical of it. He maintains that his reporting has always been professional and is unhappy with the Commission’s description of some media reports as unbalanced.
“If the Parliamentary Commission had any issues with coverage, the reporters have an association and the Speaker should have called UPPA before writing the letter,” he says.
Dr Peter Mwesige, Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence, says the move by Parliament was high-handed.
“If some experienced reporters fall short on the professional and ethical front, parliament should bring that to the attention of their media houses and regulators such as the Media Council. Deciding on who covers the legislature should not be the business of the Parliamentary Commission,” he says.
He adds: “Of course it won’t be lost on the keen observer that a parliament that removed terms limits for the president wants to impose them on the journalists who cover their official actions.”
It is unclear whether the demands of the Clerk’s letter will be met when Speaker Rebecca Kadaga returns to the country from an official trip to the United States of America. However the immediate result of the communication is evident. It has forced the media to look at its own standards for professional excellence in regard to beat reporting and its relationship with government organs.
Richard Kavuma of The Observer says the link between journalists and Parliament need not be irrevocably destroyed. Such tension can be beneficial between the parties and they “should never shy away from disagreement.”