This commentary was first published in the 6 October 2016 edition of New Vision. For more information and news on the subject, visit www.newvision.co.ug.
Parliament recently summoned the editors of several media houses to “clarify” on their publications on Parliamentary expenditure during the Uganda North America Association Conference in Boston. Below is the presentation the Vision Group Editor-in-Chief, Barbara Kaija, made to the Rules and Procedure Committee of Parliament yesterday.
The Honourable Chairperson: Rules and Procedure Committee of Parliament; and the Honourable members, we are before this Committee to interface with you on the subject of unbalanced reporting. This is in relation to our publication on Parliamentary expenditure during the Uganda North America Association Conference in Boston.
Our country’s system of government is founded on the division of accountabilities between Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary with the media playing a public affairs role.
Our practice in the media is guided by the Constitution and the Press and Journalists Act of 1995, which provides for freedom of expression and of the press and other media in Article 29.
The media is a cardinal partner in a democracy and media freedom is a pillar in deepening democracy.
The media is the guardian of public interest and in a democracy, the media offers space for public discourse where different views are expressed and the citizenry hold their leaders to account. This market place of ideas and the ensuing transparency is in turn a catalyst for development because an informed citizenry fosters development.
In any democracy, the media should be protected so that it can play its role of being the eyes, ears and voice of the citizenry.
Do we have a gauge?
The media has ethics, standards and policies which govern operations; cardinal of which is the principle of accuracy, fairness and balance. This principle is also enshrined in the Press and Journalists Act. On a daily basis, this is the benchmark on which we measure our content.
In our story: US convention paralyses Parliament (Friday, September 2), we were guided by our internal Editorial Policy clause 3.1.6., which states that: Vision Group shall point out any weaknesses and failures of any public policy and voice public opinion and criticisms constructively, fairly and objectively without becoming an institutional opponent of the Government and its interests.
This does not hinder unearthing and exposing inefficiency, wastage, abuse of office and corruption in any Government department.
This clause echoes the spirit of the New Vision Printing and Publishing Corporation Act of 1987.
Here I quote one clause relevant to this discussion: In carrying out its functions and, in particular, the function of publishing, the Government newspaper shall voice public opinion and criticisms of a given Government policy in a fair and objective manner without becoming an institutional opponent of the Government or its interests.
These principles are the same principles that guide media in every democracy. The cardinal guideline is to free media of any shackles that would prevent it from holding people in public offices to account for their actions.
The story in question was a reasonable publication. We took reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of the content and also the publication was on a matter of public interest. The story was fair and balanced and the Parliament side was adequately explained; we sourced extensively from Chris Obore, the Parliament’s director of communications and public affairs.
Like any other profession, journalists may make mistakes or indulge in unprofessional conduct and we are aware that freedom of speech is not absolute. Therefore, in our media houses, we emphasise the responsibilities that come with media freedom and these include:
- Respect of the rights or reputations of others;
- Protection of national security or of public order or of public health.
Journalists and Editors do err and when they do, there are means by which grievances should be handled and the role of umpire should never be conducted by the Legislature, neither the Executive, nor any public servant who the public calls to account.
Listed below are some of the acceptable ways for a democracy to manage the excesses of the media:
- The media house must apologise at the earliest opportunity by publishing or broadcasting an apology, a correction or a clarification as the occasion demands. This must be done as soon as the media house realises that they did get it wrong. This is painful accountability because professionally, it affects the individual editor or journalist’s rating. Internally, we have accuracy editors following up on this. To any media house, professionalism is crucial because it equals credibility and credibility is the greatest asset we offer to the public.
- If the internal checks and balances fail, the media should be called to account before an independent media council. This is the norm in all democracies. The council comprises right standing members of society. The principle here is that the independence of the regulator facilitates a free environment for the media to operate.
- And if the media council fails to arbitrate any case, there is always the well-established and respected system of the courts and the Judiciary. In case of extreme offences, media houses and/or journalists can be sued. The option of the Judiciary is acceptable because this is an independent body.
In the interest of building a democratic society, Parliament, the Executive, public servants and other powerful players should never get in the practice of intimidating the media. Journalism is a tough job. Many professional journalists stake their lives and their families to keep the different players accountable so that our country can grow. It is, therefore, important that the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary facilitate the media to play its public affairs watchdog role.
The gaps in regulation
As a country, we need an Independent Media Council operationalised. The regulator should be independent of political and economic influences that the media is meant to watch over. The Press and Journalists Act, 1995 was passed to ensure the:
- Freedom of the press,
- To provide for a council responsible for the regulation of mass media
- And to establish an institute of journalists of Uganda
However, due to the challenges of a young democracy and a young press, it was never operationalised. The media fraternity was opposed to, and is still opposed to a Cabinet Minister appointing members of the media council. This could curtail the principle of a free media and the separation of powers.
The demands of the time indicate that we need the Independent Media Council operationalised. With millions of social media users, over 250 radio stations, 14 TV stations and a couple of newspapers, the media has evolved so much that the demands necessitate a review of the composition and the set up of our dormant media council.
The August House could greatly contribute to professionalising the media by legislating both for the creation of the Independent Media Council and for adequate funding for it. Thankfully, around the world, there are good models we could study and come up with a win-win situation.
Ghana, for example, has one of the most progressive independent media councils with the major interest groups represented. Their National Media Commission is protected by an Act of Parliament. It consists of 15 members and the commission elects its own chairman.
The members include one representative each nominated by:
- the Ghana Bar Association;
- the Publishers and Owners of the Private Press;
- the Ghana Association of Writers and the Ghana Library Association;
- the Christian group (the National Catholic Secretariat, the Christian Council and the Ghana Pentecostal Council);
- the Federation of Muslim Councils and Ahamadiyya Mission;
- the training institutions of journalists and communicators;
- the Ghana Advertising Association and the Institute of Public Relations of Ghana; and
- the Ghana National Association of Teachers;
- two representatives nominated by the Ghana Journalists Association;
- two persons appointed by the President; and
- Three persons nominated by Parliament.
An independent media council whose independence and funding is protected by an Act of Parliament is desirable for our young democracy and we know that it is in your power as the August House to facilitate Uganda’s young media to grow and to serve better. However, even before the independent media council is formed, we believe that there are proper channels under the current law to address any complaints or concerns occasioned by irresponsible practice.
For God and my country.