Regulator stops live media broadcasts as Uganda MPs fight

Broadcast regulator Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) this week stopped media outlets from carrying live feed that is likely to create public insecurity.

“The Commission has noted with concern that both radio and television broadcasting operators are relaying live broadcasts which are inciting the public, discriminating, stirring up hatred, promoting a culture of violence amongst viewers and are likely to create public insecurity or violence,” read a statement dated 26 September 2017 and signed by Mr Godfrey Mutabazi, the UCC executive director.

The regulator threatened suspension or revocation of licence if any outlet defied the order.

The ban is undeniably a result of the chaotic 26 September parliamentary proceedings where MPs opposed to a motion seeking to lift the presidential age limit disrupted the House by repeatedly singing the National Anthem. Speaker Rebecca Kadaga was forced to adjourn the House. That afternoon, the singing, scuffles and chants in Parliament were broadcast live for all Ugandans to watch. The scuffles continued the next day, 27 September, after security operatives in civilian wear forcibly ejected 25 MPs that Ms Kadaga had just suspended for the Tuesday melee.

Removal of the age limit from the Constitution of Uganda would render any Ugandan above 75 years of age eligible to vie for the presidency. This would make President Yoweri Museveni eligible to run in 2021, although he would be above 75, a possibility that the Opposition has vehemently opposed.

UCC’s minimum broadcasting standards in regard to violence and crime state: “Suggestions that justice can be achieved by violence, vigilante action or other means of taking law enforcement into one’s own hands should be avoided. Any exceptions must take into account the context and redeeming values…The depiction of violence may frighten, unnerve, unsettle or invite imitation, especially from children. Therefore, only mild portrayals that are relevant to the plot may be allowed in programmes meant for children…The concerns in violence are: i. Depiction of graphic/gratuitous violence ii. Normalising the use of violence as a solution to resolve problems…”

Although many have frowned upon the ban as outright gagging of the press and denying the public important information, Mr Mutabazi went on national TV to insist that he was only following the law. “If you looked at those images coming from Parliament and you are a child, I don’t think those were the most decent pictures, ” he said.

ICT Minister Frank Tumwebaze also defended the UCC action. “Violent scenes and fights offend minimum broadcasting standards,” he tweeted. “UCC is obligated by law to enforce these standards and protect consumers.”

The ban came just before the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) on 28 September.

In her IDUAI message, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova wrote: International Day for Universal Access to Information is also an opportunity to renew our commitment to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists. Media play a crucial role in facilitating access to information to citizens and in monitoring important social issues while enlightening their audiences with insight and knowledge. There cannot be universal access to information without free and independent media.”

NTV Uganda’s Head of News Maurice Mugisha said that Parliament is a public space and should therefore be open to live media broadcasts. “It is clear that the space for free speech is shrinking consistently and this is because the State uses the law selectively to determine what can and can’t pass. Operating a broadcast house is difficult given the curtailment on free speech and the level of intimidation.”

Media expert Peter Mwesige, who also is the executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence, described the UCC directive as absurd and illegal. “I don’t think there is any law that television stations that showed what happened in Parliament yesterday [Tuesday] were violating,” Dr Mwesige told Radio France Internationale. “I also find media owners in this country rather weak when it comes to protecting the right to free expression. Yes, they have been stopped from live broadcasting, but they can still have commentators, talking about what’s going on instead of playing music and repeats of old shows. So I still find fault with both parties.”

Dr Mwesige also said it was ridiculous that a Parliament, which is in advanced stages of starting a radio station primarily to broadcast live proceedings, can be party to a decision by the regulator to ban media from broadcasting live from House.

When asked why NBS TV and other broadcasters played music rather than relay commentary during Wednesday’s parliamentary proceedings, journalist Solomon Serwanjja said that their viewers want to see, not simply be told what’s happening.

Said Mr Serwanjja: “People come to us for our live broadcasts; they want to see in real time what is happening. Commentary would only attract negative feedback. The media was between a rock and a hard place, especially for the entrepreneurs. It was either you comply with UCC or defy and lose your licence. So to shield from undue pressure, it was best to continue with normal programming.”

All was not lost, however, because, Mr Serwanjja said, NBS’s online paper, the Nile Post, bypassed the ban and relayed live proceedings to internet users around the world. The station also used Periscope to broadcast live. Unfortunately, he said, the majority of Ugandans do not have access to internet.

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UPDATE: On Saturday 30 September Capital FM, a station based in Kampala, received a call from the Uganda Communications Commission ordering it not to host Kyadondo East MP, Robert Kyagulani, on its popular weekly talk show, Capital Gang. The show host, Oskar Semweya-Musoke, revealed the information on his Twitter page.

Kyagulani, popularly known by his stage name Bobi Wine, was one of the opposition MPs who put up a fight on the floor of Parliament against the tabling of a private member’s bill to lift the presidential age limit.

Peter Mwesige, ACME’s executive director, says it is a tragedy that radio stations are complying with the Commission’s “illegal directives”. “UCC should be held to account,” he tweeted.

Saturday’s order is the latest action that the Uganda Communications Commission has taken against media houses broadcasting dissent against the age limit bill.

Speaking to NBS Television on Friday, the UCC executive director Godfrey Mutabazi, said he was justified in putting a halt to live broadcasts of the age limit debate in Parliament. He said the broadcasts of fighting MPs were likely to have a negative effect on “young boys up to four, five, six to ten years or so.”

“I don’t think those were the most decent pictures to give to the public,” Mutabazi told NBS.

“What I am trying to say is that you could have recorded and then you do the editing. You give the public the right images,” he said.

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