Government pushing Ugandan media into self-censorship – Prof. Barya

Journalists in Uganda have been forced to embrace self-censorship as a result of government’s hostility towards independent media, John Jean Barya, a professor of law at Makerere University has said.

Delivering a keynote address at the Annual Media Convention organised by the Department of Journalism and Communication, Makerere University, Prof. Barya noted that the illegalities and hostilities against the media get worse during elections.

“The media has been constructed, managed and threatened in the interest of the regime. Individual journalists and media groups have been harassed tortured, imprisoned or denied adverts, closed, or intimidated in such a way that they must practice self censorship. This is the political, legal and institutional context in which the media must do its work.”

He said it’s the above context in which the regime operates, that the media’s role should be understood, especially in regard to elections.

The professor criticised the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), saying the illegalities meted on the media by the State are compounded by the actions of the communication regulator.

“UCC under the leadership of Mr Godfrey Mutaabazi, has set itself up as a partisan commission in protecting the interests of the NRM regime. For instance, during the consultations…[by] presidential aspirants in the last elections, UCC together with the police, purported to regulate gatherings [and] assemblies of the candidates. This was applied to everyone but President Museveni,” he said on Thursday at the university’s main hall.

This, he said is not UCC’s mandate.

The communications regulator has been criticised for enforcing the social media shutdown  on Election Day and after the 2016 general elections, and in September 2017, for banning live coverage of Parliament debate on the removal of presidential age limit as well as banning the hosting of suspended MPs from talk shows. The Commission has also been criticised for shutting down radio stations over talk shows that feature the presidential age limit issue. The Commission has often cited the enforcement of minimum broadcasting standards and accused the affected media houses of inciting violence.

Prof Barya said the Judiciary and Parliament have been weakened while other state organs such as the army, police and UCC are compromised and skewed towards support of the ruling regime. He said Uganda is a neo-patrimonial State, in which corruption is used as a method of governance.

In spite of Prof Barya’s criticism of government and the ruling NRM party, the guest of honour, Ms Mary Karooro Okurut, who is also the Minister in charge of General Duties in the Office of the Prime Minister, insisted that there is a good percentage of media freedom in Uganda.

“In regard to the environment in which the media operates, the NRM knows that it’s not yet Uhuru but it has made steady progress. Where there are gaps, we work to fill them.”

She called on media practitioners to practice social responsibility in journalism and avoid sensational reporting. The minister also advocated for training of journalists in election reporting.

“A lot of lies are told by groups which specialise in playing victim. It would, therefore, be good if journalists have knowledge on elections,” she said.

Other speakers at the convention included Mr Gerald Walulya, a lecturer at Makerere’s Department of Journalism and Communication; Mr Daniel Kalinaki, the head of editorial content, Nation Media Group, Uganda; and Mr Adolf Mbaine, the event convener and journalism lecturer. Mr Mbaine said to function effectively, UCC must be independent of political parties, media houses and media practitioners.

On the other hand, Mr Kalinaki pointed out the need for the media to redefine its role, from mere news gathering to responsible journalism for positive social change. He cited the case of Kenya where journalists ‘sleepwalked’ into post-election violence in 2007 partly because they ignored post-election telltale signs that could have been investigated further rather than being glossed over.

He questioned the ‘peace journalism’ approach the Kenyan media adopted while covering the country’s recent general elections, a phenomenon criticised by some media scholars for undermining journalistic integrity in the name of peace. Mr Kalinaki wondered what ‘peace journalism’ really is, a term some in the media fraternity think means “hear no evil, see no evil”.

He emphasized that elections must be covered as a process, i.e., before, during and after, rather than as an event.

To close the convention, Dr. William, Tayeebwa, the Head, Department of Journalism and Communication, announced the introduction of a Bachelor’s degree in Public Relations and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Multimedia studies.

The convention, held every year since 1998, aims at discussing topical issues relating to the role of the media in society and to provide solutions to challenges that inhibit the media from playing its rightful role to society in Uganda and in the region.

This year’s theme was, “Media and governance in emerging democracies and hybrid regimes: Reporting elections in the East African region.”

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