STATEMENT: Let the media freely report the 2021 general election

For Immediate Release
11 December 2020

Kampala—African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) is dismayed by the 10 December directive by the Media Council of Uganda (MCU) to all practising journalists in Uganda to register for accreditation or risk losing the right to cover the 2021 elections and other official events.

The same statement by the regulator says all foreign journalists intending to cover the forthcoming elections are required to get new accreditation cards and obtain a special media pass from the Media Council, “showing particular geographical or thematic areas of intended media coverage”.

We recognise the mandate of the Media Council in regulating the practice of journalism in Uganda and promoting standards, but the timing of the latest guidelines on accreditation is not only questionable but was always bound to raise suspicion.

Coming at a time when both local and foreign journalists covering the election campaigns have documented several cases of illegalities and excesses by police and state functionaries as they go about regulating public meetings and rallies by opposition candidates, the new directive on accreditation easily comes off as a move to stifle media scrutiny of this conduct as well as critical and independent journalism generally in the run-up to the 2021 elections.

Ironically, the guidelines were released on 10 December, the International Human Rights Day. The Media Council said the accreditation of local journalists was in accordance with Section 1(d) of the
Press and Journalist Act, which provides for “promotion, generally, of the (flow) of information”.

“We are afraid the move has the potential of doing exactly the opposite at a time when citizens need access to reliable and timely information in order to make informed political decisions,” said Dr Peter G. Mwesige, ACME’s executive director.

In any case, we are not sure of the legality of registering journalists without following the procedures prescribed in the law. Moreover, the provisions of the Press and Journalist Act on licensing of journalists are controversial and still the subject of litigation in the Constitutional Court.

According to the law, the Media Council is supposed to issue practising certificates to journalists who have presented certificates of enrolment issued by the National Institute of Journalists of Uganda (NIJU). The Council’s job is to enter the enrolled journalists on the “register of journalists of Uganda” after which those who have paid the prescribed fees are issued with practising licences.

As far as we are aware, NIJU has been moribund for more than 15 years, and therefore it could not have issued any certificates of enrolment on which the Council would base its decision to issue practising licences. The law does not provide for accreditation for local journalists.

Regarding foreign journalists, the Media Council is indeed mandated to issue them accreditation cards allowing them to work in Uganda. The foreign journalists working here already had accreditation cards, which typically allow them to cover any type of story, including those on the electoral process. Asking these journalists to acquire special media passes to cover the elections introduces unnecessary roadblocks.

At any rate, the Media Council could have done a better job explaining the timing and rationale
for its new accreditation guidelines.

The Media Council says they were responding to the infiltration of the media industry by “quacks” and “recent events of election coverage” that have shown that “reporters/media practitioners are exposed to a lot of danger from all sides of the divide”. They add that accreditation will allow “free movement and access by media practitioners to important events, in particular during this election period, without undue harassment”.

“Indeed, recent physical attacks on journalists are regrettable and should be condemned by all, but we don’t think they were occasioned by lack of identification on the part of journalists,” Dr Mwesige said.

We call upon the Media Council to carry out more consultations in a transparent manner and to address the concerns of both local and foreign journalists.

As Uganda’s Supreme Court has said, the primary objective of media law and regulation should be to promote the right to freedom of expression, not to limit it.

ABOUT AFRICAN CENTRE FOR MEDIA EXCELLENCE

ACME is a Kampala-based independent, non-profit professional organisation committed to excellence in journalism and mass communication in Africa. The organisation fulfils its mandate through refresher training for mid-career journalists; media literacy training for civil society organisations, corporate companies and others; media monitoring and research; and freedom of expression advocacy.

For further information, please contact Mr Apolo Kakaire on +256772-416-179; akakaire@acme-ug.org

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