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Govt plot to muzzle press freedom leaks

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Journalist Karundi Sserumaga (right), is accompanied by a relative to Buganda Road Court to answer sedition charges in September 2009.  Independent/ File Photo Fresh revelations about the government’s plan to amend the Press and Journalist Act (1995) ahead of the 2011 election have sent shockwaves throughout the journalism community. Many see it as an attempt to further curtail press freedoms.

The Independent has obtained a leaked copy of the cabinet-approved principles for a bill and it appears to have significantly sharper teeth than any previous media legislation.

The bill seeks to introduce new licensing conditions for newspapers and to empower the rather moribund Media Council by providing it with the ability to close media houses that violate them. Its Section 5.1.7 calls for a strengthening of the disciplinary committee of Media Council. It expands upon the need for annual licensing for newspapers by the Media Council and changes the composition of the council so that the Minister of Information can personally appoint the allegedly-independent board.

When shown the document, Dr. Peter Mwesige, Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence, put it starkly: “The proposed amendments are not merely a threat to journalists and the media; they are a threat to free expression and democracy.”

For Mwesige, the intention is to create a Media Council which will in effect be able to operate like the Broadcasting Council, closing radio stations at will. “Clearly,” he argued, “the government is interested in control of the media, not regulation.”

Section 5.1.8. is perhaps even more disturbing, if only for its vague wording. Its aim is:

To amend the existing Act to create offences and penalties against media houses that publish material prejudicial to national security, stability, and unity or utterances that are injurious to Uganda’s relations with her neighbors or friendly countries or utterance and publish materials that tantamount to [sic] economic sabotage  (bold in the original).

As one prominent Kampala-based lawyer said, the usage of nebulous phrases like ‘national security’ and ‘public morality’ are indicative of the bill’s true nature not as a legal regulatory tool but a political one. He noted here that ‘national security’ is really regime security.  These sections of the proposed Bill act as a means for someone in power to say “if I don’t like that thing then I will say it’s contrary to ‘national security’ and I will close it down.”

The Independent’s Andrew Mwenda, John Njoroge and Charles Bichachi in Buganda Road Court facing sedition charges on May 9th 2008.  Independent/ File PhotoThe lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity noted after glancing over the principles for the bill, “Considering elections coming and all these issues at CBS and the media generally, I think it’s just an attempt at having more power, to come down on people and close down that space.”

Dr. Mwesige and the lawyer were both echoing a 2004 Terrorism profile of Uganda by the London-based surveillance watchdog Privacy International. It quoted Makerere University communications lecturer Adolf Mbaine who wrote forebodingly, “The point has been made before that media freedoms have implications for the general freedoms of expression; and that when media freedoms suffer, the other will most likely follow in the same order.”

Minister of Information and National Guidance Kabakumba Masiko, who is driving the Bill, says people should not try to tie it to the coming elections. “This process has been ongoing…we are trying to streamline the operations of the media,” she said, adding that it is a transparent and consultative process by which bills become laws exists in Uganda and that all relevant parties will become a part of the process when it enters parliament for approval.

She echoes her predecessor Kirunda Kivejinja’s comments in a 2008 interview with The Independent, arguing that the original act must now be amended in order to “fill the gaps and strengthen the practice of the media.”

Uganda prides itself on its relatively liberal media laws and free press but amendments to an old law have some wondering just how far that freedom extends. 

In a June 2008 parliamentary meeting, President Museveni held up a 2005 issue of the Daily Monitor and proclaimed, “A newspaper has no right to damage our future. You publish one false story, immediately it is on the internet and all over the world, you have no right.”

Since then, journalists and media houses throughout Uganda have endured hard times.

The suspension of Mengo Kingdom’s Central Broadcasting Service radio station, during the September riots last year, and its continued clampdown has prompted serious complaints from rights groups and legal activists.

A number of journalists last year had alternately been charged, arraigned, interrogated, suspended, fired and even barred from practicing journalism over allegations ranging from criminal defamation to inciting violence and theft. The precarious state where many Ugandan journalists found themselves is all the more tenuous now given fears of instability and intimidation in the forthcoming election year. Despite the recent U.S. Congress directive placing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in charge of monitoring the elections and actively promoting, among other things, freedom of the media; the proposed amendments to the Press and Journalist Act are still seen by critics as feeding into those anxieties.

What critics seem most perplexed about is that the bill simply seems unnecessary. According to Mwesige, “the categories that the government is proposing to introduce are not acceptable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.” Indeed a legal process for dealing with errant journalists exists.

Arinaitwe Rugyendo, director and proprietor of The Red Pepper tabloid newspaper noted that “the laws are clear, we have been arrested left, right and center. We have been charged in court. We are facing sedition, libel and defamation. Members of the public have successfully sued journalist and won cases. That is what is should be. The state has arrested journalists and incarcerated them. So that means the legal system is working.”

In September 2009, a letter addressed to President Museveni signed by a group of thirty media watchdogs, NGOs, and activist groups called Uganda a country where “media freedom is in peril”, beseeching the President and his government to make assurances that media practitioners would not be subjected to degrading or inhuman treatment and that the state would engage with the media in a civil matter, respecting the rule of law. Three months later, a New Vision article reported the government’s plan to amend the Press and Journalist Act, in order to “regulate the work of the media”. Dismissing concerns that the new amendment was unfriendly to stakeholders, Minister Masiko defended the Government’s action of shutting down some media houses, arguing it was justified for the good of all Ugandans.

Comments (21)Add Comment
Who is the enemy of the country?
written by Fighter, January 27, 2010
Fight corruption & nepotism not the media. The media points at the problem go and tackle that problem. The clear evidence of a failing state is when it starts fighting the media.
Let the media now also put across its own proposal
written by MABO, January 27, 2010
The media & we citizens need & shld enjoy freedom of expression. Wht is also clear is that the media given their postion in society(power of the pen) can mis use or over ride their freedom by omission or comission. As the adage goes the journalist are like a dagger/sword i.e they are two faced they can build or destroy. In this era of I.T & PR hype where media at itmes assume political advocacy an editorial policy regulations are needed. If you want to believe tht media is never impartial just follow the Isreal-palastine crisis. Wht does the arab & western media report? Is it in interest of peace? Even all reknown ugandan journalists are not can't claim to be impartial. So let the publish its proposal also. For God & my country.
Gov or Media
written by Fighter, January 28, 2010
If the media has no proposals, will that mean that the Gov has no proposals? If public institutions are working, impartial or not, the media wont be a problem. If people have good roads, public schools, public health insurance scheme/public health institutions, running water, no nepotism and corruption, then what else would the media have to negatively say about the Gov? With all this in place, who will have time to listen to them?
When the chickens get home to roost
written by KATURAMU RWEBANDO FRED, January 28, 2010
It is home...the message of dictatorship. It is a good thing in a way. That simply means we join North Korea and the likes of muzzled societies just because someone is becoming greedier every passing us God. Surely a new guerrila war has began by those who write candidly; what remains is a publicity of the name of the new anti dictatorship organ.
MABO, here are the media's proposals
written by Des.M, January 29, 2010
MABO, the media says, let gov't stop the rampant robbery of Uganda's resources and assets, stop nepotism,stop dictatorship, repression, and stop leaving our hospitals, roads, schools to dilapidation, let gov't allow free expression grow and thrive, stop wasting tax-payer's money on big gov't ,useless RDCs inclusive. And just to ask you MABO, the media in this modern world we live in are a watchdog for gov't and other aspects in society, so is it sensible to limit their watching zone?
Reply to Mr Des.
written by MABO, January 30, 2010
Mr Des,its true the media is supposed to be a watch dog abt govt purfomance/excesses. Regards regulation of the media am not agianst it provided it makes them perform better. Wht is not deniable is tht at times the media can over assume its limits based on editorial policy to an extent of undermining the state functions. Am sure the dynamics of the media politically & economically is well known. Am not one of those who believe tht the media can be INDEPENDENT in their reporting. As an example just look the media abt terrorism,palastine crisis,USA foreign policy. Their spin to favour the west is obvious. Why? So,let the ugandan media propose the minimum regulation Vs wht the govt plans. For God & my country.
Museveni smells of over-staying in power
written by Lakwena, February 02, 2010
Muzzling press freedom is a sign of serious leakage of Museveni's popularity. If the media is left free to do what it does best, i.e. report every national issues, by February 2011, the popularity bucket would be empty. In other words it is like an acute and uncontrollable diarrhea. Most people especially his pet: "development partners" hold their noses whenever they relate to Museveni the man and his sycophantic handlers. First of all Museveni smells of over-staying in power. Secondly he is fake as far as democracy and fighting corruption is concerned. He only issues empty threats. Which means he politically survives on dictatorship and corruption. Regime change is the only way out for Ugandans.
written by maria, February 08, 2010
Well, when the message is bad, do you kill the messanger? it seems that is what the government wants to do to the media for daring to point out that the Emperor is naked instead of praising the non-existent suit. This is a far cry from someone who kept on deceiving Ugandans in the beginning that he welcomes criticism. I think everyone in the government imagines that all Ugandans are daft.
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