Monday, May 04, 2009

Free but no freedom for Uganda’s journalists

Uganda marks World Press Freedom today with at least a dozen journalists facing prosecution over stories that the State deems are either seditious or defamatory.And with each passing day, the environment is becoming more dangerous and difficult for journalists to operate in. Lately, the formation of a Cabinet sub-committee to recommend a way of reining-in the media and the proposed Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Bill (loosely known as the phone tapping bill) are some of the schemes the government is seeking to use to clamp down on the media.

And yet, journalists are still grappling with draconian laws that threaten freedom of the press and expression such as the colonial laws of libel and sedition that continue to exist in the Penal Code Act.Several journalists have also been arrested, detained and charged, while media houses have been shut down in the past for publishing or broadcasting information that the state deems prejudicial to national security.

But even though Article 29 of the 1995 Constitution guarantees free speech and expression, which has been translated in the robust liberalisation of the airwaves that allowed for the media industry in Uganda to grow with hundreds of FM stations now broadcasting in English and diverse local languages, experts say the media is not free as it looks on paper. The head of the Mass Communication Department at Makerere University, Dr George Lugalambi, said that while the laws look reasonably good on paper for the media, it's different in practice.

"Journalists can't take anything for granted and should always be mindful of the consequences of their reporting,'' he noted. He said that while journalists have been able to include more investigative stories in their day to day reporting, a lot more still needs to be done.Mr Joachim Buwembo, a veteran journalist, who himself is facing charges of sedition in court believes colonial laws on sedition and libel have no place in today's democracy because they only work to intimidate and scare journalists from reporting independently.

"These laws are just a foreign colonial force. This government has been claiming to be patriotic, they should also be patriotic enough to remove these colonial laws,'' Mr Buwembo said.According to Mr Livingstone Sewanyana, the executive director of the Foundation Human Rights Initiative, one of the key organisations that have been advocating for a free and responsible press, the legal environment remains restrictive.

He points to laws such as the Anti-terrorism Act 2002, The Press and Journalists' Statute and the now proposed phone tapping bill that would legalise phone tapping by security agencies.The phone tapping bill, Mr Sewanyana says, does not only run counter to the right to privacy law, it will also make it difficult for journalists to keep sources of sensitive information confidential, and thus make it even more difficult for the public to volunteer critical information to journalists.

"This will create self censorship by journalists and media owners because many fear losing their licenses or being shut down, or even losing business from adverts. With such restrictive laws, the media cannot exercise its independence as it should be doing and this has a chilling effect on independent journalism,'' Mr Sewanyana explained. Mr Sewanyana also observed that having a free press is crucial for the development of democratic governance in a country like Uganda where democracy is still in its infancy, adding that laws that undermine press freedom should be repealed.

"A free press should be able to expose more corruption within government, call for accountability of the leadership and ensure that institutions are clearly monitored so that they do what they are supposed to do,'' said Mr Sewanyana.Senior presidential adviser on media issues, John Nagenda, admits that while the relationship between the State and the media has not been a perfect one, but also insisted that there is a high level of press freedom.

"I would say that taking into account all considerations, there is freedom of press in Uganda. There should always be reporting with responsibility and when that does not happen, the law often takes its course," he said.

Mr Nagenda said the problem has been with reporting in the country, which he said was not always done professionally. "The stories are not well researched many times and at times this gets government frustrated,'' he said. But Haruna Kanabi, one of the veteran journalists who spearheaded the formation of an Independent Media Council, disagrees with Mr Nagenda on the extent of press freedom. He says what we have in Uganda today is media tolerance. He says the pillars on which press freedom should be flourishing in Uganda are being undermined by bad laws.

"What we have here is tolerance and when that tolerance runs out that's when you see the powers that be threatening press freedom,'' he said.
He believes journalists have the capacity to act professionally and responsibly, and it's for this reason that an independent media body to enable media professionals to self-regulate themselves was formed."It's an alternative to the media law. We are saying we don't want to regulate media through laws. Through this Independent Media Council, we can see how we can improve on our performance,'' Mr Kanabi said.

The Independent Media Council has a code of ethics which governs the conduct and practice of all media practitioners, owners and media institutions, with the view of maintaining high standards of professional conduct."The intention of the code is to ensure that we are accountable at all times while dispensing our duties," Mr Kanabi added.Meanwhile, the acting Chairman of the Uganda Newspaper Editors and Proprietors Association, James Tumusiime, wonders whether the government really believes in the press freedom that they so tout about as enshrined in the Constitution.

"On the one hand you are free to publish since no one stops you but fear keeps hanging over your head of the trouble that you will cause yourself for publishing certain stories,'' said Mr Tumusiime, who is also the Managing Editor of the Observer newspaper.President Museveni, while consistently emphasising the importance of free speech has at the same time consistently attacked the media for allegedly "misleading and misinforming" the public. And he has repeatedly promised to tame the media, accusing particularly independent media houses like the Monitor Publications Limited of sabotaging the country's development.

The President's unhappiness has always been provoked by stories which expose abuse of office by people close to him or disregard for due process in the conduct of government business. Stories on the military and other security related matters also tend to upset the President resulting in him promising "to deal with" the free media.But Mr Tumusiime explained that media freedom, notwithstanding the discomfort that comes with it, is indispensable in the building of a democratic state, which Uganda is trying to do.

No comments: