The Media Council of Uganda (MCU) has directed all practicing journalists in the country to register or risk being denied rights to cover the electoral process and other events.
The exercise starts next week and will run up to 21 December 2020.
According to Mr Paulo Ekochu, the Council chairperson, criminal charges will be slapped on any media houses, both local and international, including freelance journalists who fail to register.
But industry groups and civil society organisations have protested the latest directive from the regulator, questioning the timing in the middle of campaigns ahead of the 14 January 2021 general elections.
Mr Ekochu said all media houses, editors, journalists, and other practitioners that obtained accreditation for 2020 are required to apply for renewal for 2021 given that all current press passes will expire at the end of the year.
He added that the registration was primarily to ensure the safety of journalists and media practitioners.
“We have received several complaints from journalists about harassment by security forces but are unable to help them because we do not know who is a journalist and who is not since most of them lack accreditation,” Mr Ekochu said in a phone interview with ACME.
The council has also tightened the grip on foreign correspondents who intend to cover the forthcoming elections.
“They are required to obtain a Special Media Pass from the Media Council on request, showing particular geographical or thematic areas of intended media coverage. Accordingly, all Special Media Passes issued by the Media Council of Uganda shall expire on 30th March 2021,” the regulator said in a statement on 10 December.
Mr Ekochu added that all the current accreditation cards for foreign journalists had been recalled so that they are issued with new ones that contain security features that can be verified by Security agencies.
Last month, three Canadian journalists working with CBC News who had come to cover elections were deported from Uganda. While their employers claimed they had met all the requirements for foreign journalists reporting in Uganda, Mr Ofwono Opondo, the government spokesperson, said they were accredited to cover COVID-19 and Tourism in Bwindi Forest but were found doing other things unrelated to this.
Mr Ekochu said the latest directive was not in any way meant to close out some journalists as many other foreign journalists have been given access to the country.
The Media Council was established under Section 8 of the Press and Journalist Act, Cap 105, to among other things, “…regulate the conduct and promote good ethical standards and discipline of journalists; arbitrate disputes between— the public and the media; and the State and the media; exercise disciplinary control over journalists, editors, and publishers; and promote, generally, the flow of information.”
In its 10 December statement, the regulator said the accreditation of local journalists was in accordance with the section of the law which provides for “promotion, generally, of the (flow) of information”.
However, Dr Peter G. Mwesige, the executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), was quoted as saying in a statement released on 11 December: “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,”
Media industry and civil society react
Different media associations acknowledged the Media Council’s mandate to regulate the practice of journalism, but they argued that the timing of the directive was unrealistic as it came in the middle of an election campaign season when many journalists were already covering candidates in the field.
The Uganda Editors’ Guild in a statement issued on Friday evening expressed concern about the limited time allowed for the registration to take place as well as the refusals to accredit foreign journalists who wish to cover the election in Uganda.
“We also note that while the current law, which is more than two decades old, provides for registration of journalists, it might have been overtaken by developments on the ground, including the emergence of social media, citizen journalism, and user-generated content,” the statement added.
The Editors’ Guild urged the Media Council to hold more consultations with different stakeholders to “ensure that the constitutional right of citizens to receive and disseminate information is not unduly harmed by these regulations.”
Mr Joseph Beyanga, the Secretary General of the Uganda National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) said the mandatory registration of journalists at a time when media houses have been deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic was not feasible.
“The registration comes with a cost implication of Shs200,000, which must be borne by either the media house or the journalist,” he said. “Many journalists have not been paid for a long time but have continued to work out of passion; many cannot afford to pay the registration fees.”
Mr Beyanga however noted that if it is done well and not in a rush, the registration will help media houses deal with the issue of masqueraders who forge their identity cards and use them to blackmail innocent people. “However, let it not be used as a weapon to weed out good journalists,” he said.
ACME said it was dismayed by the regulator’s directive. “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,” the ACME statement said.
It added: “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.”
The Human Rights Network for Journalists- Uganda (HRNJ-U) for its part questioned the credibility of the Media Council to carry out the process due to its composition.
The Press and Journalists Act, which gives the Media Council the power to register journalists also establishes a National Institute of Journalists in Uganda (NIJU) to, among other functions, train, establish, and maintain professional standards.
“The law suggests that the council must constitute two representatives from the NIJU, but NIJU is not in existence. This means that the voices of the journalists are not well represented,” said Mr Robert Ssempala, the HRNJ-U national coordinator.
He added: “Much as the registration is a good thing, the process is incomplete without an institution like NIJU in place. The law envisioned NIJU as a one-stop centre to train journalists as we see the Law Development Centre for lawyers. Without that, mere registration cannot help.”
The Press and Journalist Statute was enacted in 1995 and was later renamed an Act in 2000. Its objective is 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, the activities of the media council have been questioned by human rights activists who argue that it is only trying to silence the media.
“But also, since we are seeing foreign correspondents being bounced off, we suspect that this registration targets them as well as critical Ugandan journalists. The Media Council should instead address such challenges as the criminalisation of journalists who are covering the opposition,” said Mr Ssempala.
ACME also questioned the legality of registering journalists without following the procedures prescribed in the law. Noting that the provisions on licensing of journalists were controversial and still the subject of litigation in the Constitutional Court, ACME said nonetheless the Media Council was supposed to follow them.
“It is supposed to issue practising certificates to journalists who have presented certificates of enrolment issued by the National Institute of Journalists of Uganda (NIJU)” and paid the prescribed fees, the ACME Statement said.
It added: “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.”