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Should defending media be left to foreign activists?

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

I recently moved from New York to Nairobi to protect you better; to be closer to you,” declared Tom Rhodes of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) at a press briefing at Hotel Africana on September 23.

Rhodes was part of an international joint mission on freedom of expression that spent last week meeting up with, among others, government officials, statutory media regulators, media trainers, human rights groups and media owners, managers and editors in Uganda.

The mission, led by Freedom House, an organisation dedicated to fostering freedom of expression and media, stated its objective as “communicating concerns about the state of free expression in Uganda and ensure that it doesn’t deteriorate prior to the 2011 elections…”

Rhodes was responding to a concern raised by a journalist that so many such attempts had come up with similar recommendations as this mission but nothing tangible had been realised.

While agreeing with the concern, Courtney Radsch of Freedom House observed, “The objective (of missions like this one) is to put government under pressure that the international community is watching; governments care about their image abroad.” She added, “Tomorrow we shall meet with the US ambassador; we shall communicate to him these concerns. A report shall also go to (the US) Congress.”

The mission, hosted by the African Centre for Media Excellence led by veteran journalist and media trainer Dr. Peter Mwesige, comprised of media freedom advocacy organisations Freedom House, CPJ, Article 19, the Media Foundation for West Africa and the Media Institute of Southern Africa.

The mission drew up 13 recommendations ranging from moderating the powers and streamlining the roles of resident district commissioners (RDCs) to guard against interference with press freedom, throwing out the proposed Press and Journalist Amendment Bill and repealing obnoxious penal code provisions like criminal defamation and promoting sectarianism.

Other recommendations touched on expeditious and fair trial for journalists who are facing charges, thorough and prompt investigation of the unresolved recent cases of murder of two journalists, Paul Kiggundu and Dickson Ssentongo, providing more funding and opportunities for media training and following due process in sanctioning media outlets and reopening  CBS Radio station “without any further delay.”

Rhodes stressed it will not be the last time they are made. Advocating media freedom, like other freedoms, he said, is like “a broken record; you have to sing the same song again and again” until change occurs.

While the mission met up with several individuals, the Uganda Journalists’ Association (UJA) was not one of the prominent ones they said they met. They probably did not have to meet UJA, after all many journalists believe it does not exist anymore.

Recent happenings have not helped to make the association stronger. Chaos gripped City Hall recently when many journalists were stopped from accessing the premises where a new UJA leadership was to be elected, forcing New Vision’s Henry Mukasa to withdraw from the race for UJA president.

In confusion analogous to the NRM primary election chaos experienced recently, the first attempt at electing a new UJA leadership had ended in chaos and the election suspended. At the second attempt at City Hall, Joshua Kyalimpa retained the presidency amidst accusations supported by his predecessor Kateregga Musaazi that he had tampered with the association’s constitution and hatched a scheme for vote rigging. Mukasa hinted on possibilities of founding another journalists association.

UJA has also come under criticism over shs 150 million donated by President Museveni to acquire an office for journalists. UJA officials say they acquired a plot in Kyanja, but the place is located far off the city centre that the offices would be of no practical value to journalists.

On our way from Hotel Africa, the venue of the press conference the mission had called to communicate their findings, this reporter walked with another journalist who was proud about the recent ruling party delegates conference in Namboole. The journalist claimed that he is the most trusted by a powerful ruling party big shot, and that he is the one who asked for the shs 4 million that was given to journalists at Namboole for “lunch.” He said the money bought lunch for 10 journalists.  This journalist also recently won NRM candidature for district councillor.

Because Ugandan journalists are preoccupied with such activities, there is a vacuum for CPJ and the like to fill. But, as they admitted, since they rely on government’s sensitivity to international criticism, what would happen if President Yoweri Museveni got so rich from oil and stopped caring about what the international community says?

One remedy against state intervention the mission recommended, which is already underway in some form, is self-regulation. However,  the media self-regulation body, the Independent Media Council of Uganda, was initiated and is led by ruling party politicians who last practiced journalism decades ago. There is every reason to wonder whether their primary intention is to push the boundaries of media freedom. But since practicing journalists have more immediate preoccupations than attending to media freedom and pushing for press freedom, it difficult to decide who to blame.

Make no mistake, however. Many initiatives in the war for media freedom in Uganda have been Ugandan in origin, the recent decision of the Constitutional Court to decriminalise sedition and writing false news not the least among examples.

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