By Kyetume Kasanga
The government of Uganda is in the process of formulating a new legal framework for regulating the information and communications sector. A task force set up to lead the process is already working, with the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance as the lead agency.
Available information suggests that the government has held a few consultative meetings ahead of the formal tabling of the process to amend or repeal the Press and Journalists Act 1995, the Uganda Communications Act 2013, and other associated legislations such as the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act 2022, among other laws.
Uganda’s media industry and other stakeholders have spent many years critiquing the existing legislation – and rightly so – in as far as it inhibits freedom of expression, journalists’ safety, and professional independence.
Kyetume Kasanga presented this background at the stakeholder Dialogue on the Reform of Uganda’s Media Laws, on Thursday, 17th November 2022, at Golf Course Hotel, Kampala
Right to hold opinions
The right to hold opinions and to express them freely without government interference is protected under the international and national legal framework. This includes the right to express views aloud through published articles, books or leaflets, television or radio broadcasting, works of art, and the internet and social media.
The framework also protects the freedom to receive information from other people by, for example, being part of an audience or reading a magazine. This right is particularly important for journalists and other media workers. As a vital feature of a democratic society, they are free to critique the government and public institutions without fear of prosecution or persecution.
Derogation of the right
However, that does not prevent the state from imposing restrictions on the media to protect other human rights. Individuals or groups have a duty to behave responsibly and to respect other people’s rights. Public authorities may restrict this right if the action is lawful, necessary and proportionate to protect national security, territorial integrity or public safety, prevent disorder or crime, protect health or morals, protect the rights and reputations of other people, prevent the disclosure of information received in confidence, and maintain the authority and impartiality of judges. The authorities are also allowed to restrict freedom of expression if, for example, one expresses views that encourage racial, religious or any kind of hatred.
Ratification of international treaties
Under the Foreign Policy Objectives of the National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy in Uganda, the state is, inter alia, required to respect international law and treaty obligations. Due to the foregoing and other factors, Uganda ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).
Special duties and responsibilities of citizens
Article 19 of the UDHR provides that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. Article 19(2) of the ICCPR provides that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”. Paragraphs 3(a) and 3(b) thereof state that the exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities.
It may, therefore, be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as provided by law and necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others; and for the protection of national security or public order, or of public health or morals.
The 18th Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the OAU made a historic step toward protecting human rights in Africa by adopting the ACHPR in Nairobi, Kenya, on 27th June 1981. Uganda was one of the 51 African states that ratified it, with Uganda’s Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Ethiopia, H. E. Mr Benjamin William Kanyonyozi Matogo appending his signature on 18th August 1986.
Article 9 of the ACHPR provides: “Every individual shall have the right to receive information. Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law”.
Media freedoms in Uganda
In Uganda, media freedoms are enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995, as amended, hereinafter known as the Constitution. The Foreign Policy Objectives of the National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy require the state to, inter alia, promote the national interest of Uganda and to respect international law and treaty obligations.
Thus, Article 29(1)(a) states: “Every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media”.
The Constitution also shows that the right to freedom of information is not absolute, as enshrined in Article 43(1), which provides for a general limitation on fundamental and other human rights and freedoms.
It emphasises that freedom of the media, like all other freedoms, carries special duties and responsibilities: “In the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms prescribed in this Chapter, no person shall prejudice the fundamental or other human rights and freedoms of others or the public interest”.
Statutory regulation for journalists in Uganda
Statutory regulation for journalists was introduced in Uganda in 1995 with the enactment of The Press and Journalist Statute, which was later upgraded into the Press and Journalist Act, Cap 105 of the laws of Uganda.
The Act was 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 in Uganda. The idea behind enacting the law was to improve journalism standards in the country, which were very low at the time. The law was not welcomed by a cross-section of the industry it was supposed to benefit. However, it did yield some achievements, such as compelling many journalists to return to school for Bachelors and even Masters degrees in journalism and communication.
First amendment of the Act
The Act was amended by the Press and Journalist (Amendment of Fourth Schedule) Instrument, 2014 (Statutory Instrument 5 of 2014). However, there was total resistance by journalists over the provision to enrol them into the National Institute of Journalists of Uganda and issue them with annual practising certificates through the Media Council.
Cabinet approval of the Principles for the initial Amendment of the Act
The Act was incapable of effectively regulating online media, citizen journalism and social media. To bring it up to speed, Cabinet approved the principles for its amendment. However, the First Parliamentary Council rejected the principles and the draft Bill for being unconstitutional.
New process and status of media law reform
The Media Council and the Department of Communication and Information Dissemination in the Ministry put together new Principles for a fresh Amendment of the Act. They were submitted by the Minister of ICT & National Guidance for Cabinet approval. The First Parliamentary Counsel is now drawing the Bill for stakeholder consultations before submission to Cabinet.
Kyetume Kasanga is the Secretary to the Media Council of Uganda and Ag Assistant Commissioner for Information Monitoring, Ministry of ICT and National Guidance.