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Media challenged on anti-corruption fight

By Victor Bwire

Most of the reports now being discussed in Parliament relating to corruption have been lying in newsrooms

As the demand for accountability in the use of public resources in Uganda intensifies, with parliamentarians on top of the efforts, one wonders how Ugandans will be mobilised to join the effort.  Parliament needs the support of each of us, more importantly the public to not only expose but demand for a return of the looted funds. How do we create the needed public resentment of those in public positions that are channeling public resources to personal use that they are ejected from and jeered in churches, mosques, school meetings, welfare bodies and international meetings? How do we make their families, professional bodies and business associates know what these guys are; thieves?

The media must wake up and scale up their role in the ongoing effort to redeem the country of corruption by writing boldly and frequently on the issue. The time to hide in our soft spots is over and we must make a decision-the public is watching. Indeed word has it that most of the reports now being discussed in Parliament relating to major scandals have been lying in most newsrooms. Journalism is not a profession for the faint hearted.

It was becoming a source of concern that the peoples’ watchdog in the demand for accountability and transparency in the management of public resources-, which ordinarily is the media, became targeted by the government for harassment and restriction- through laws, ownership and brutal attacks. While the politicians went on a looting spree of public funds, the technocrats were co-opted by coming up with all manner of laws to curtail press freedom while businesspeople were at hand to buy huge stakes in  the sector so that they became gatekeepers for the looters.

Fearing that the media would expose them, for which a number of media outlets and individual journalists have done so well- they set to out an all out war, using the most crude methods to fight a free and independent media in the country, but the heat  has turned on them. Parliament is on the war path and needs our support.  Uganda needs a vibrant media now more than ever before.

The government and its operatives have taken a very punitive approach to rein in the media. Restrictive laws and regulatory frameworks are used to harass journalists through preference of frivolous criminal charges and shutting down of media outlets. We have seen increasing systematic attacks against journalists and ensuring that the ownership of most of the radio stations, which have the widest reach, especially in the rural areas, is controlled by politicians in the ruling party or people who enjoy close ties with those in power.  Journalists have become targets of attack by both state security agents and members of the public who enjoy close ties with political players in government are common. Most of the reported cases have not been resolved due to wanting investigations or lack of commitment from the police and the prosecution to put to account the often-known perpetrators.

As the efforts to root out corruption takes shape in the country, the media needs to shape up and escalate it given its reach and power.  While efforts will be needed to engage the government to review some of the restrictive laws, the journalists need to ask themselves hard questions- has their wanting performance, lack of professionalism, infightings within their professional bodies, corruption and failure to do public good solely been because of the government? Has the lack of interest in serious investigative journalism solely been because of factors external? Has the lack of solidarity amongst journalists on matters affecting them, disconnect between editors, reporters and correspondents and above all, the falling quality of our articles and radio, and TV programmes been because of restrictive laws? Why are people fleeing the profession? Is it solely because of poor pay? Why have our senior journalists now occupying senior positions as editors or station managers stopped being journalists- why are they not writing or participating in broadcast programs? How transparent and democratic are our newsrooms?

A lot is needed in facilitating the media to join and robustly scale up the anti-corruption fight in Uganda. The international community needs to join local actors to engage the government and parliament to review some of the mentioned laws to ensure that they meet international best practice and international and regional human rights standards on freedom of expression and rights to access information. International, regional and national media development networks have to join the effort.

There is need to create solidarity and a common agenda for the media fraternity in the country to not only reduce the divisions in the sector, but ensure that media issues are part of the national agenda and an environment is created for the media to play its role in national development unhindered.

As a rebranding process, journalists must start a process to strengthen professionalism and accountability through revitalising and institutionalising a strong self-regulatory body, build the capacity of media associations to regain their lost glory and implement their mandates for promoting and protecting journalists, and train both journalists and Government agencies to understand and respect freedom of expression and press freedom.

Can the media use the Access to Information law to file information requests for information relating to use of public good now that the government published the rules operationalising the Access to Information Act 2005?

Bwire works with ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa

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