The recent political events in Uganda stressed the significance of media freedom in the democratization of a country like ours.
However the events leading to and after
the 2021 general elections also put a question, does the Media in Uganda enjoy the freedom it deserves to accelerate the democratic development?
Without mentioning the harassment of journalists experienced, there are other factors that still undermine media freedom.
Robert Ssempala, a media rights advocate and Executive Director of Human Rights Network of Journalists Uganda defines media freedom as a feeling of those engaged in media work of being free to receive, impart information but also play their watchdog role and hold the powerful to account for and on behalf of the public.
He goes on to explain that the ability to feel free to do journalistic work translates into media freedom and doing this work without being scared of what is likely to happen after making a statement in the media, when someone acts of fear that seizes to be media freedom.
According to Ssempala, media freedom should be that environment where the practitioner feels free to do their work and they are not scared of the repercussions.
The focus on media freedom comes ahead of May 3, World Press Freedom day which is marked annually because of the significance of Media freedom attached to good governance, democracy, human rights observance and social service delivery especially to the vulnerable groups in our communities.
Having keenly monitored the recently concluded 2021 general elections, Ssempala, a journalist by training and practice now an activist, gives his assessment of media freedom during the electoral period.
“The media was the most targeted entity in Uganda next to the political opposition because many journalists that were covering opposition candidates were targeted, beaten, their gadgets confiscated, their journalistic work was deleted and there was no crime brought against them, meaning that they didn’t offend or break laws of the land, they were only targeted because they were giving coverage to the opposition”- Ssempala explains.
He further testifies that it was very evident that some talk-shows in Fort Portal, Pader, Gulu, Mubende among other districts radio talk-shows were stopped prematurely, talk-show guests were blocked from accessing the radio stations while in some places radio stations were completely switched off.
“the media was entirely not free, as Human Rights Network for Journalists we registered over 100 cases of journalists being interfered with while doing their work since the nomination of candidates in October 2020 but we also registered over 30 serious cases of physical confrontation”-Ssempala.
And the attacks on journalists have continued even after the elections.
A study by the 2020 Sauti za Wananchi a branch of Twaweza indicates that
citizens appreciate the role of the media in national development.
This justifies the need to mark the World Press Freedom Day because ensuring media freedom would mean a lot for many Ugandans out there.
However towards the 2021 general election, the Uganda Media council embarked on registering all journalists that were supposed to cover the elections, a move that some interpreted as licensing the journalism profession or a form of controlling the media
This idea was challenged by some stakeholders to the extent of filing a court case against it. But this raises another question whether government agencies can regulate media work and to what extent.
In response to this question of regulation, Ssempala says that when you look at governments especially in African Democracies, they have stakes in controlling media so they cannot freely regulate what media should be doing because most of the work by media is to hold those in powerful positions to account, exposing the corrupt so the same people cannot regulate how media must operate.
“Certainly there would be no work for the media, if the very same people in key positions are going to determine the terms operations of media houses while we believe that the media should be responsible to the public by not corrupting their morals, by not jeopardizing security, by not inciting ethnicity conflicts, those should be the only justifiable grounds for government to come in and control the editorial policies and decisions of media houses”-Sempala.
Journalists working for foreign media were also asked to renew their accreditation as for them to cover elections.
Liam Taylor a freelance journalist with the UK Economist and the co-chair Foreign Correspondents Association of Uganda explains that it was very difficult for many to renew their accreditation in the middle of the electoral campaign.
Although in the end the journalists working with foreign media channels did get the new accreditation but this stopped many from doing their reporting at that time.
Under the new accreditation process one of the requirements introduced was that a journalist had to submit 6 sample pieces of their work, which was a matter of concern for many journalists.
The justification for this requirement is to help the Uganda Media Council verify whether the applicant is a genuine journalist doing what they claim to be doing.
For Liam this was unnecessary because all applicants had supplied the Media Council with letters from their respective media houses to prove what they are.
“Our concern is that the Uganda government is trying to vet our work and if the Media Council or the security agencies actually do not like that kind of work it is going to become more difficult for those journalists to get their accreditatio,” says Liam.
Liam believes that this is more of controlling the media.
“Journalists are not doctors, we are not lawyers, nobody is going to be put at great risk from my reporting, there are processes in place within the media houses to ensure that the reporting is accurate but if a journalists writes something factually incorrect then readers can write to the news-paper to complain and a good newspaper will issue a correction and of course for something libelous there are court processes to take those media houses to court, many media houses around the world do not have any licensing of journalists…and our concern is the license is not for purposes of quality journalism but for Journalism that government likes,” Liam adds.
However the secretary to the Uganda Media Council Kyetume Kasanga clarifies that the move was merely registration of journalists for purposes of ensuring professionalism. He denies that council was issuing out annual practicing certificates/licenses as depicted from some circles.
“The media council does not seek to license journalists. We were not licensing journalists …., we were only registering journalists , by licensing you would need to give a separate document to every individual journalist you have dealt with but when we register we were giving them cards which in effect were passes to give them easy access to their news sources , so that did not tantamount to licensing”-Kyetume clarifies .
On the other side of the coin, is there something positive from the registration of journalists by the council.
According to Kasanga, regardless of the timing of the registration exercise, the Uganda Media Council was only enforcing its legal mandate to streamline the profession and not gaging journalists.
“Which profession is never regulated I know none, so if we agree that journalism is a profession then it must be regulated and in regulation there should be minimum operational standards and those are the issues that the Media council deals with in view of journalists. Some people have misunderstood that to say we are gaging, the media council/ government does not gag journalists it only seeks to regulate them it is not to stop freedom of expression, ” Kyetume asks.