KAMPALA. Ugandan journalists have continued to suffer at the hands of the brutal police and a string of oppressive laws that has narrowed down the media space in the country.
Journalist at the forefront, trying to make leaders accountable have suffered untold brutality in the hands of the police and other security forces, with powerful ruling NRM party members and government officials also contributing to the onslaught on journalists.
The 2017 press freedom index put the police at the forefront of tormenting journalists, nine years in a row.
Arrests and detention of journalists topped the year with 45 cases followed by assault with 27 cases.
Blocking journalists from accessing news locations came in the third place with 11 cases while malicious damage to journalists’ equipment registered 10 cases.
Two cases each of switching off radio stations on the orders of the Uganda Communications Commission and breaking into media houses were also reported; four cases each of threating violence against journalists and of journalists suspended from work, again on orders of UCC; and one case each of issuing a death threat and of kidnap and of a media house being closed.
Battles with the law
Article 29(1a) of the Constitution provides that everyone shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression which shall include freedom of press and other media. Article 41(1) says everyone shall have the right to access information in the procession of the State. Article 20 guarantees that the freedom of expression and of access to information are inherent and not granted by the State.
Despite all these provisions of the Constitution and other international laws, government has continued to enact laws to stifle media freedom in the country.
Sections 53 and 179 of the Penal Code criminalise defamation. Section 41 criminalises sectarian speech and forbids talk along tribal, religious, ethnic or other lines of differences among people. It thus criminalises media scrutiny of demographic imbalances in the sharing of the national resources.
Many provisions within Press and Journalist Act 2000 also limits freedom of expression and of the media in unnecessary ways.
The Anti-Terrorism Act 2002, the Public Order Management Act 2013, Regulation of Interception of Communication Act 2010, Uganda Communications Act as amended in 2016, Computer Misuse Act 2011, the Anti-Pornography Act 2014 and the Official Secrets Act 1964 have all continued to be used against free speech and expression.
Police have continued to assault journalists while invoking such laws to clamp down on media freedom.
Mr Robert Ssempala, the Executive Director of Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda), said the State agencies in Uganda continued to use laws to curtail freedom of expression and of the press.
According to Mr Ssempala him, the police and UCC used criminal charges to prevent journalists from writing and reporting about stories that facilitate good governance and State accountability.
“These laws are drafted in a way that is wide catching and can be invoked against anyone and many journalists could not write or follow up stories that critique government for fear of being victimised using these laws,” he said.
The Communication Amendment Bill 2016 of the Uganda Communications Act 2013 gave extraordinary powers to the minister of Information, ICT and National Guidance to pass all regulations governing the communication industry in the country without parliamentary oversight.
Mr Ssempala said: “The problem with the Bill is that the minister has been given power to single-handedly control communications, which is a very sensitive sector in the country.”
The 19th Uganda Human Rights Commission report published in June last year also criticised the amendment Bill. The commission noted that “the amendment threatened enjoyment of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and that information is such an important resource which should not be tampered with without adequate consultation with the people’s representative”.
Mr Ssempala said the effect is now manifested in the way institutions, particularly UCC, apply the law in selective way.
“The regulator decides which station to close; which staff of a media house should be suspended; which station should be warned; which guests must not be allowed to appear in talk shows; which media houses should have the broadcasting licence revoked, withheld or suspended” he said.
UCC had rough times with broadcasters last year, closing two media houses in the process. Radio Hoima and Kanungu Broadcasting Services were closed citing breach of the minimum broadcasting standards, which calls for a broadcaster to ensure any programme it broadcasts is not likely to create public insecurity or violence.
UCC also ordered suspension of a number of staff of the affected media houses. Other events that saw the UCC unleashing its venomous fangs on the media freedom were denying media space for divergent views during the countrywide strike by medical workers and banning live broadcasts during the age limit removal campaigns, which were “inciting the public, discriminating, stirring up hatred, promoting a culture of violence amongst the viewers and …likely to create public insecurity or violence.”
Ambassador Mogen Pedersen, the Danish Ambassador, said the events in the country are a cause to worry about the press freedom, which is getting extremely narrow.
“It is apparent that Ugandan media is currently under pressure to silence critical and independent voices-especially about public officials and government excesses. This is a clear attempt to intimidate the press and consequently it has led to self-censorship by media houses and journalists in order to avoid harassment,” he said.
“We, therefore, call upon the respective State agencies to fulfill their obligations to promote universal respect for, and observance and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations,” he said.
Government has, however, downplayed the issues of harassments, saying press freedom cannot be measured with isolated cases of journalists clashing with security forces.
Mr Frank Tumwebaze, the minister of ICT and National Guidance, said overall, Uganda has liberalised the media space and many media houses have joined the trade.
“You don’t measure press freedom with isolated incidences of journalist clashing with security personnel. Those are isolated cases and we all need to know how to balance journalism and security operations.
By and large, look at the freedoms of the media we have. The entire waves were liberalised, TVs and radios are everywhere. Ugandans do more talking on the radio than doing anything because of a highly liberalised and active media.
He also said the fact that government has not yet touched on the law demanding that all journalists be registered to practice in the country, speaks a lot about the level of freedom in this country.
“Even with Journalism and Press Act in place, government has not enforced regulatory requirements like licensing of journalists. Everyone, whether qualified or not, can open a newspaper. That never happens in many countries which many of you admire as progressive democracies,” he said.
He added: “Opponents of government enjoy and dominate media space. This is a fact, so to say government fears divergent views is false.”