By Peter G. Mwesige
The Ugandan Cabinet’s ban on “ALL live broadcast media coverage of the activities of the ‘Defiance Campaign’ organized by Dr. Kizza Besigye and his cohorts” is as absurd as the Constitutional Court’s interim order that halted the opposition’s election protests.
Gen. Jim Muhwezi, the Minister of Information and National Guidance, who on Tuesday joined journalists to celebrate World Press Freedom Day, has today warned that “Any media houses that continue offering live coverage of the so-called ‘Defiance Campaign’ risk having their broadcasting licenses revoked.”
I hope the media will defy this ridiculous and unconstitutional ban on free speech and expression.
As we celebrated World Press Freedom Day on 3 May in Kampala, Dr. Katebalirwe Amooti Wa Irumba, the Ag. Chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, urged the government to “keep all restrictions on freedom of expression and the media within the acceptable human rights standards”.
“In this respect,” he said, “they must be legal, necessary, proportional, acceptable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society; and those that enforce the restrictions must be accountable.”
The ban on live media coverage of Besigye’s defiance campaign is illegal, unnecessary, disproportional, unacceptable and unjustifiable even in a society like ours that is neither entirely free nor fully democratic.
The Uganda Law Society and others have already alluded to the absurdity of Deputy Chief Justice Steven Kavuma hearing the government’s application that he based on to issue the interim order against the ‘defiance campaign’ exparte (in the absence of Dr. Kizza Besigye and his party).
But even if one were to argue that Kavuma’s interim order went through due process, I don’t see how it can be used to justify a ban on live media coverage of the defiance campaign or other election-related protests.
The executive has used the courts to gag a legitimate political actor from expressing his dissatisfaction with the manner in which the man he was challenging, President Yoweri Museveni, was re-elected. Dr Besigye and others have challenged the court’s directive. The media have acted as a witness to this contestation and brought the fight to our living rooms. It is up to Ugandans to decide whether to embrace ‘defiance’ or accept ‘no change’.
The media are messengers. They are not the authors of the defiance campaign, which, by the way, is also allowed by our Constitution. At least the court is yet to rule to the contrary.
As the chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission reminded us, “We must also keep in mind that freedom of the press and other media is a corollary to the freedom of expression of the individual. This connotes the fact that the promotion and protection of media freedom necessarily promotes and protects freedom of speech and expression of individuals and the public. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true that when media freedom is attacked or illegitimately restricted, the general freedom of speech and expression of individuals is negatively impacted.”
It appears that the Cabinet wants the media to ignore the defiance campaign and focus on the “outpouring of love” as President Museveni is sworn in next week.
The good citizen should be urging the media to report the political events unfolding before us accurately, fairly, comprehensively and in a manner that helps all understand what’s at stake.
The media should subject claims by both Besigye, Museveni and other political actors to thorough scrutiny.
But they owe it to the public to cover the activities of all these actors.
Dr. Peter G. Mwesige is co-founder and executive director of African Centre for Media Excellence. He previously headed the department of journalism & communication at Makerere University and was executive editor of Monitor Publications Ltd.
Photo caption: Information minister Jim Muhwezi marches for press freedom two days before media gag