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Govt gives with one hand and takes away with another

By Courtney C. Radsch

Although Uganda’s country’s constitution provides for the right to freedom of expression including ‘freedom of the press and other media,’ several laws negate these constitutional guarantees and the government is increasingly cracking down on critical journalists and media houses.

Several statutes, like the Press and Media Law of 1995, require journalists to be licensed and to renew their licenses each year, though this provision is frequently overlooked.

The Penal Code still has provisions on sedition, criminal libel, and the promotion of sectarianism, which all criminalise publication offences. The Electronic Media Act 2000 establishes a statutory regulator, the Broadcasting Council, which is not independent of the government. And finally, the Anti-terrorism Act of 2002 also contains provisions, which if enforced, would stifle press freedom.

At least 15 journalists appeared before the courts last year on charges of sedition, criminal libel, and other various charges. Four journalists from Uganda’s largest independent newspaper, Daily Monitor, were charged with ‘forgery’ after publishing a leaked presidential memorandum.

Uganda is one of only a few countries in Africa with a freedom of information law, but the government has been slow to pass the regulations to guarantee full enjoyment of the constitutional right of access to information.

Self-censorship is on the rise following the Broadcasting Council’s closure of four radio stations after riots that were sparked by a political standoff between the Buganda Kingdom, Uganda’s most populous region, and the central government in September. The broadcasting regulator accused the Buganda Kingdom-owned Central Broadcasting Service, Suubi FM, Radio Two and the Catholic Church’s Radio Sapientia of promoting sectarianism and inciting the violence in which 30 people were killed, most of them by security forces. The Broadcasting Council also suspended the popular ebimeeza (open-air talk shows), through which ordinary people participated in national debate. In the days following the closure of the radio stations, it became apparent that the Broadcasting Council had been acting on the directives of the government. The closure of the four radio stations has had a chilling effect on journalists from other media houses, who exercised additional self-censorship. Three radio stations, Radio Sapientia, Suubi FM and Radio Two, have been reopened, but they have been forced to dismiss journalists and presenters that the government was not comfortable with, while CBS remains closed.

The government also used security agents to harass, intimidate and detain journalists who are critical of the government. Kalundi Serumaga, a talk show host with Radio One was abducted just after he had appeared on a television talk show, and detained incommunicado for a day. He was later charged with six counts of sedition. According to the US Department of State, after his release, the Ugandan Broadcasting Council suspended him from the radio talk shows.

Although Uganda’s media landscape appears vibrant and diverse following the liberalisation of the airwaves in the early 1990s, there are concerns that most of the mushrooming radio stations, especially in the countryside, are owned by politicians and people close to the ruling party.

Media owners are somewhat complicit in the erosion of press freedom. In order to safeguard their investments, they play it safe and ‘cut deals,’ including agreeing to onerous conditions specifying which journalists are allowed to work for them.

Courtney C. Radsch is Senior Progamme Officer with Freedom House, an international press freedom advocacy organisation in Washington.

www.freedomhouse.org

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