By Agather Atuhaire
Why is Parliament afraid of media criticism?
A letter from parliament directing media houses to have journalists who have covered parliament for over five years, replaced has sparked public fury and debate. It is seen as a disturbing trend in which parliament has tended towards gagging the media. “We think that this is a way of silencing media voices and violating freedom of expression and speech at a time when the country is tending towards critical times where a number of sensitive issues like the budget process, and the much anticipated constitutional and electoral reforms,”says Robert Sempala of the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ).
HRNJ Uganda and the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Uganda convened a press conference and issued a statement on March 13 against what they called parliament’s meddling in press administration.
“Parliament cannot pick who in the media should cover it,” their statement reads in part, “Such a decision will be unlawful, unjust, unfair and ridiculous and therefore subject to court for judicial review.”
The directive, which has since been dubbed the “evil letter”, was written on March9 by Jane Kibirige, the Clerk to Parliament. It listed more than 50 journalists that the parliament leadership wanted replaced by May 1.Kibirige noted she was communicating on behalf of the Parliamentary Commission, which she said had reached the decision “in the interest of balanced media coverage of the Parliament”.
Activists say deploying journalists should not be the Commission’s business. Renowned journalist and Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), Peter Mwesige says Parliament does not have that mandate.
“Media houses can and do change journalists,” said Mwesig “but it’s not parliament to change them.”
Mwesige said that what Parliament did is against the Commonwealth rules. He said it was doubly disappointing considering that Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadagais the current chair of the Commonwealth Parliament, a global organisation of over 50 countries.
Parliament Commission’s mandate
The Parliamentary Commission’s mandate is to appoint, promote and discipline people who hold public office in Parliament, review Standing Orders, train, recommending allowances and privileges for MPs, and any other matters necessary for the well-being of the members and staff of Parliament.
The body is chaired by the Speaker and other members include; the Deputy Speaker, the Leader of Opposition, the Prime Minister and Leader of Government business, four MPs selected by the ruling party and the opposition parties and the Clerk to parliament who is its secretary.
Speaker Kadaga had travelled when the letter was issued but, given its far-reaching implications, many believe the speaker had knowledge of it or ought to have.
For now, one by one, members of that body including its vice chair, Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah, have disowned the decision.Oulanyah declared the letter null and void during a plenary sitting.
“This letter should be taken as a letter but its command should be treated as no command,” Oulanyah said, “…and the date set shall not be effective until the Parliamentary Commission comes with some form of decision on this matter.”
William Nokrach, another member of the Commission and representative of Persons with disabilities also said he did not know the origin of the letter.
“My position is not different from that of the Deputy Speaker,”Nokrach told The Independent, “We are still waiting for the Speaker to come back and address the issue.”
Even Leader of Opposition, Wafula Oguttu,says he does not remember the Commission reaching that decision.
Oguttu, who is a co-founder of the Monitor Publications Ltd, which publishes The Daily Monitor newspaper and owns NTV, and KFM radio, has come under fire for supporting the direction. He says it is not good for journalists to stay in one station for long because, he says, it makes them complacent and get in intimate relationships with those they are supposed to cover. He says this affects professionalism.
But Mwesige disagrees. He says ethics and professionalism have nothing to do with longevity saying that it does not require five years for someone to be compromised.
The Parliamentary reporters under their umbrella Uganda Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA) have threatened to take parliament to court if the decision was not rescinded.
Even with Oulanyah’s communication nullifying the letter, the journalists insist they want an explanation and the letter withdrawn in writing.
They have the backing of a former commissioner, Bunyole MP Emmanuel Dombo, who finds the decision “ridiculous”.He argues that Parliament’s leadership should know the significance of experience. At one point, he revealed, the Commission was against parliament being covered by intern journalists.
Buikwe South MP LulumeBayiga who is also the Secretary General of the Parliamentary Forum on Media said that the Commission erred by taking an administrative decision on the matter.He said the Forum would have addressed the matter amicably if it necessitated disciplinary action.
“We formed a forum to enable us to handle grievances amicably and that is what should have been done,” said Bayiga, “the decision was uncalled for and it will not solve the underlying issues.”
Sempala says it should be obvious to anyone that parliaments all over the world are covered by experienced journalists, not novices.
“They understand the rules of procedure and the politics better,” Sempala said. He wondered what the architects of the plan are seeking to hide from public scrutiny when the country is nearing what he calls a critical time.
Apart from Sempala, other critics see the directive as part of a disturbing trend by the parliamentary leadership to gag the media. They argue that this trend has to do with the 9th parliament increasingly falling out of favour with the public after failing to live up to expectations.
When the 9th parliament commenced in May 2011, it enjoyed positive press fortaking decisions independent of the executive, implicating ministers, and pushing for the censure or resignation of some.
Speaker Rebecca Kadaga hogged the positive press as she was portrayed as a counterforce to the executive led by President Museveni. It is her deputy Oulanya, who took the hit most of the time. At one point, he said he was getting “bad press” because he had not paid journalists like other politicians do.
At an event at Sheraton in 2013, Oulanyah told journalists that one day he would get a platform like the one they have and tarnish their names like they had done his.
Kadaga under fire
In a turn of events, Kadaga has become the centre of criticism.
The lowest moment was when in January 2013, she ordered for the suspension of two journalists from The Observer newspaper, David TashLumu and Suleiman Kakaire over the stories they had written about the petition to recall parliament from recess to debate the suspicious death of former Butaleja Woman MP CerinahNebanda.
Nebanda’s death was controversial and had pitted parliament against President Museveni. About four MPs were arrested for allegedly stirring up a storm over the death.
The journalists’two separate stories questioned why Kadaga refused to recall parliament when the petitioners had done what is required by law.
Kadagahad also vowed to go ahead and recall the House provided the petitioners gathered the required signatures of one third of the MPs. But President Museveni mounted pressure on Kadaga telling her at a meeting in Rwakitura that she would only recall parliament over his dead body.
The petitioners gathered the required signatures but Kadaganever recalled parliament.
She claimed that some of the MPs who had signed the petition had written to her saying that they wished to recall their signatures. Some of the petitioners had threatened to take Kadaga to courtbut were later convinced by the Speaker and other members to drop the idea.
The observer published a story written by Kakaire saying that the petitioners had struck a deal with the speaker, which is said to have rubbed Kadaga the wrong way.
Kakaire and Lumu were suspended. A January 28 letter from the office of the Clerk to Parliament addressed to The Observer editor stated that the articles by the two reporters were “full of inaccuracies” and “damaging to the office and persons of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker.”
The letter also faulted the reporters for filing inaccurate articles without bothering to cross check with either the Office of the Speaker or the Public Relations Office which is against the Guidelines of Covering Parliament.
The journalists dragged parliament to court where the case is still pending.
Last year, according to sources within parliament, the Speaker toyed with the idea of suing The Independent Magazine over a story about the institutions performance and expenditure.
She told MPs during one of the plenary sessions that The Independent had written falsehoods and that the 9thparliament had performed better than all the previous parliaments byfar. Parliament also booked a full page coloured advert in The New Vision rebutting the article by The Independent.
Shortly after, Kadaga convened a parliamentary commission meeting to discuss the issue of “bad press”.
She also at one point last year rebuked a Journalist; Charles Odongotho, over a story he had written about the money meant for the Constituency Development Fund.
Critics point to these events to argue that the parliamentary leadership is increasingly becoming intolerant of criticism.
Before the decision was announced on March 9, there had been reports that Kadagahad grown uncomfortable with the stories The Daily Monitor’s YasinMugerwa had been writing about parliament.
There are reports that parliament leadership was even contemplating suspending Mugerwa and he among the 51 journalists that Parliament wanted out.
One of the MPs who spoke to The Independent on the condition of anonymity said that even the way the Speaker steers Parliamentary business has changed.
The MP cited the Public Private Partnership (PPP) that the President has returned to parliament twice and which the Speaker has sent to the Finance Committee for review thrice.
While the constitution in article 91 allows the President to send a law back to parliament to be amended before assenting to it, Clause 5 of the same article says that Parliament can, with two thirds of the members pass the same law if the president rejects it twice.
The MP says Kadaga should have put the matter to vote when the President sent it back for the second time instead of referring it back to the committee that has already reviewed it twice.
The legislator says that this is not how the Speaker handled controversial matters before.
In 2011, Kadaga, recalled parliament from recess to debate the mismanagement of the oil sector particularly allegations that senior Ministers had got bribes from oil companies even when President Museveni had ordered her not to do it.
In 2013, she defied President Museveni and the Attorney General and allocated seats to MPs that had been expelled from the ruling NRM party. The MPs included Ndorwa East’s Wilfred Niwagaba, Buyaga East’s BernabasTinkasimire, Theodore Ssekikubo of Lwemiyaga and Kampala Central’s Mohammed Nsereko.
As the 9th parliament comes to an end, there is no doubt the directive on journalists has come off as the worst low for Kadaga’s leadership.