By Abalo Irene Otto
Media and human rights activists have appealed for a more enabling environment that allows journalists and all Ugandan citizens to express themselves without fear.
Speaking at a pre-World Press Freedom Day dialogue at Churchill Courts in Gulu last Friday, media activist David Martin Aliker said that journalists cannot be a voice of society if they are restricted from doing their work.
“The media should serve as a voice of the marginalized,” Mr Aliker, a former Gulu mayoral candidate, said.
World Press Freedom Day, commemorated every 3 May, is celebrates the fundamental principles of media freedom, evaluate the state of media freedom around the world and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in line of duty.
Mr Aliker said that people are “chocking on issues” because they are not sure of their safety after speaking out.
“Is it freedom of expression or freedom after expression that we should be mindful of at this time in Uganda?” he wondered.
He added: “How do we protect the Stella Nyanzi’s of our world when there is always a force against literary expressions?”
Mr Aliker was making reference to Makerere University research fellow Dr Stella Nyanzi who is on remand in Luzira prison for calling the president “a pair of buttocks” on her Facebook page.
The dialogue was organized by the African Centre for Media Excellence in partnership with Northern Uganda Media Club and Uganda Human Rights Commission under the theme, “Freedom of expression and freedom of information to foster more inclusive societies”. Support for the event was given by the United States Mission in Uganda.
Mr Sam Lawino, a journalist from northern Uganda, said laws in Uganda are made to favour the policy makers which prevents journalists from executing their roles.
“We have media laws that look at the media as an enemy of the state instead of the fourth estate,” Mr Lawino said.
He said that journalists are beaten up and their gadgets confiscated or destroyed in line of duty and the legal action doesn’t always guarantee justice.
In March, former Old Kampala DPC, Joram Mwesigye was convicted by Buganda Road Court Grade one magistrate Gladys Kamasanyu of assaulting journalist Andrew Lwanga and inflicting bodily harm on him. It took Lwanga two years to get justice. Lwanga was compensated with Shs5m and a Shs1m court fine. However, many journalists were not impressed with how the case was handled considering the permanent disability caused to Lwanga and the impact on his livelihood.
Ms Patience Aber, a news Editor with Vision Group’s Radio Rupiny, said media laws that guarantee the safety of journalists should be put in place.
“The law should protect us such that when we are doing our job as journalists, we are not worried about our safety,” she said.
However, Ms. Fionah Opoka Abalo, the human rights officer with Uganda Human Rights Commission Gulu said the media can change the laws that control them if they follow the right channel.
“If you think the laws are oppressing you, maneuver through them and change them to make them favour you,” Ms Abalo said.
Meanwhile, Mr Martin Okoyo, the Gulu district police commander expressed disappointment in some media houses whom he said abuse their freedom to disseminate information.
“Some radio stations have become battle fields and the moderator is the referee. They do not care about use of language and the audience listening at that time,” he said, adding that some journalists think they are immune to the law.
Mr Okoyo said the police will “arrest the presenter for allowing use of inappropriate language that misleads the masses”.
Dr Okullu Mura, a retired Commissioner for Information at the Office of the President, said journalist have to represent a voice that mirrors the conscience of the common man and pursue positive activism through investigative journalism.
“Journalists need to investigate more than report in this era of social media. You must be cool headed to investigate and come out with stories that you can easily defend with factual evidence,” he said.
Mr Apolo Kakaire, ACME Advocacy and Communications Manager, advised journalists to use their personal initiatives in developing their competencies.
He said journalists have many challenges that can only be overcome if they form or join media associations that can protect them from injustices in line with their profession.