On 20 April 2016, former Principal Judge and chairman of the Elders Forum, Justice James Ogoola, presided at the Uganda National Journalism Awards gala night. At the ceremony, held annually to celebrate and reward exceptional journalism, Justice Ogoola challenged the state to uphold the letter and the spirit of constitutional provisions on freedom of information and freedom of the press. He saluted journalists who, despite the difficult conditions in which they work, have excelled in their profession.
The full transcript of his speech, as delivered, is below.
Justice James Ogoola: Thank you very much; and thank you ACME for having me here, but even so for the wonderful food and for everything else.
I’ve been asked to make a few remarks before we get into the real work of this evening: the awards and of the gifts to those who have performed excellent work in this sector.
Let me begin my remarks this way then.
The press is the eye of the people. It is the ear of the people; and the voice of the people. A vibrant eye sees more clearly. A vital ear hears more keenly. A vigorous voice speaks more forcefully. That is why the constitutional democracies have the press elevated to a very lofty position. They call it The Fourth Estate, an estate which takes its place in the queue just behind the three arms of state: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial arms.
The constitutional question – critical, cardinal question – then is: how has the Fourth Estate interacted with the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. It is the soundness of the relationship between these four that gives life to the press.
In recent times, in this country, the press appears to have acted well with the judiciary. With the legislature, there appears to be at least one outstanding issue. There could be many, but there is one that is outstanding. And that is the issue of parliament’s change of its rules of procedure to introduce proceedings in camera, especially regarding the hearings of certain appointments that are before the appointments committee of parliament. The press, I understand, has petitioned parliament over this.
Should the vetting and appointment of high public officials be done in the sunshine of noontime or in the darkness of midnight? Should it be done in camera or openly and transparently?
As regards relations between the press and the executive branch, I’ll say a little more later.
Because of its elevated status in society, in mature constitutional democracies the Fourth Estate is given its due recognition in the constitution of the country. Its freedoms are assured through an express provision written in the constitution itself. In Uganda’s case, for instance, Article 29 of the 1995 Constitution assures us, the people and the press, the following protection, and I quote: “Every person shall have the rights to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media.”
Inclusion of a clause in the constitution is only the first and formal stage. The more substantive question is whether the letter and the spirit of that constitutional provision is implemented in practice. Is the constitutional protection manifested in the everyday life of the state? In particular, is that protection respected and guaranteed, especially in good times and in bad times? Is the promise of the constitutional guarantee fulfilled in season and out of season?
Take a look, for instance, at the history of our country’s electoral seasons. Do the authorities ensure a level ground for the dissemination of press coverage? Do they ensure uninterrupted flow of information to the political competition? Are the captains of the media houses and the foot soldiers of the press left free to do a professional job or are they harassed and compromised? Is the overall legal framework and especially its interpretation and application press friendly or not?
The answers to these and similar questions are the barometer by which the efficacy of a country’s press freedoms are measured.
In these last elections in Uganda, you could say the press got on well, and so did, largely, the state. However, a number of incidents, and I’ll take just three, stand out as a sore thumb.
One, the drab and shoddy treatment of some journalists covering the Kasangati residence of Retired Colonel Kizza Besigye was erratic and uncalled for. It could have been more decent. On the other hand, it’s incidents such as these that make members of the press come out shining, for these are the incidents that breed journalistic matters.
Two, and most painful, was the closure – unprecedented closure – of the social media on the day of the elections. The act of closure was bad. The timing of the closure was worse. The intention and the implications of the closure were horrifying.
There was a third one, a third incident, which was more secret, but equally damaging. In the course of preparing for the presidential debates – the first one, the one of January 15th – the organisers got wind of a possible power cut to stifle the debate that evening. We contacted the regulators of the power facility and were ensured that no sabotage would be effected. Behold: on the evening of the great debate, some parts of especially the capital city were blessed with the quiet dark of the night, away from the glamour of the debate. I do not know who was responsible for that. I therefore assign no blame to anybody in particular. You can have your own guess.
Tonight, in the full glare of the lights of this gleaming hall, we recognise and celebrate the heroic acts of some among you journalists who have faced the passion of professionalism and come out intact; who have faced the wrath of persecution and come out strong and courageous; who have climbed the slippery pole of the press and reached the top, holding their heads high.
To these icons of the press, we raise our hands in salute. We raise our voice in commendation, and we bring our presence tonight in solidarity and in celebration of your singular achievements.
In this regard, it’s worth recalling the tenets of good journalism. I’m not a journalist, so I may not have the list exhaustively, but let me make a try. Good journalism would answer questions like: is it accurate? Is it truthful? Is it relevant? Does it engage? Is it independent? Is it credible and authoritative? Does it inform? Does it provide context? Does it explain? Does it educate? Does it provide a platform for debate? And to me, perhaps the most important, does it offer a voice to the voiceless?
These are the tenets in which tonight’s awardees have excelled. Truly they have run the race. Truly they have earned the crown.
It’s my honour and privilege to be the one to perform their coronation.
Thank you so much.