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Media clampdown, human rights and succession

By Peter Nyanzi

Prof. Frederick Jjuuko heads the Department of Law and Jurisprudence and is a professor of Media Law at Makerere University. He spoke to The Independent’sPeter Nyanzi about the ongoing standoff between the government and the media.

Were you surprised by the action of the government to close Daily Monitor, Red Pepper and the two radio stations?

Not really, because it has happened before. Two, given the level of political activity in Uganda, you could expect this kind of thing and it is generally in tandem with the intolerance of this regime and its militaristic approach to issues.

But President Museveni’s government has always claimed that Uganda has one of the most free media environments on the continent?

That is part of the government propaganda that has been going around.  It is a gross misunderstanding of what is involved in a free media environment.  We have never had a free media environment under NRM since 1986.

What then, according to you, are the ingredients of a free media environment?

Free media is a fundamental human right that belongs to every human being and it involves freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. Journalists enjoy that right but even I as a non-professional have a right to free media.

The other aspect is the fact that it is a civil and political right, which enables citizens to freely discuss political issues as citizens. That is different from the economic right to own property and to invest. That is what we have here –freedom to invest in radio stations and newspapers- and that manifests in the type of content in our media, which is basically of a commercial nature.

If you want to measure the amount of freedom of the media as a civil and political right, you need to look at how much freedom there is to express ourselves politically, to criticize government and its functionaries, to have public debate on how the government runs public affairs, etc.

You will see that it is severely limited. That is why bimeeza were banned. When there are critical issues to be discussed, the media will be savaged. This being a militaristic regime, anything to do with those aspects will always be reacted to very severely.

So what is your assessment of media freedom in Uganda in recent years?

We have not had media freedom. And indeed, whatever has been published or appeared bold and courageous in the media was in spite of lack of media freedom not because of media freedom. People have staked their necks. To some extent the little freedom we see is because people have used legal means to challenge some of the repressive media laws in the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court.

There is always widespread international condemnation when media freedoms are attacked anywhere in the world, and it has not been any different this time.  Why is this so?

Well, because we are part of the global community. But also in terms of human rights; I mean we have human rights standards of which we are part. The formation of the United Nations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 put in place standards and covenants to which Uganda has an obligation.

The global community has a stake.   It’s no longer possible to live in isolation to the rest of the world.  Also, there is ease of communication and solidarity, which are very helpful to humanity.

From a legal perspective, how should the government have handled the Gen. Sejusa situation as opposed to closing down the media houses?

It stems from a bigger political problem.  We have never had a democratic dispensation. Since 1986 and since the promulgation of the Constitution in 1995 and its amendment in 2005, we have had something fundamentally wrong with this regime politically.

At the core of it is that it is militaristic – or you can actually say it’s a military government – which won’t allow to be challenged politically.  Then along with that, the people you could call the ‘conscience of the Movement,’ the people who cherished its original ideals as they were stated – the Amanya Mushegas, the Eriya Kategayas, etc – have left.

This means that this regime has been reduced to its hardcore of militarists. Now, the political contestations are amongst those militarists.  That means a public discussion of their contradictions will always have severe consequences because they will tend to be handled militarily.  That is what the closures of the media houses should be understood to be – military operations.

But the government said the operations were legal?

Just look at the explanations. Ms Karooro Okurut ( then-Information Minister) said the actions were taken under Section 37of the Penal Code Act. Now, if you look at that section, this thing about publishing ‘information that is prejudicial to national security’ is about information about troop movements, locations, and logistics.

It has nothing to do with this situation at all. Then another minister comes and says they have a court search warrant. A search warrant is not an occupation or closure warrant. So the government should have done nothing to the media houses because there was no crime committed. No government official has authority to close a media house. Only the courts can do that. Even those closures by the court are very limited if you look at the Press and Journalists Act.

Why do you think, did the government react like this as regards Gen. Sejusa’s dossier on the so-called Muhoozi Project?

Whether there is a Muhoozi project or not, whether it is true or not or a mere allegation, does not matter. The public have a right to discuss it because it is critical to this country in the sense that it touches on the political transition and succession.  Remember that this country has never had a smooth transition from one president to another.

That means it is in public interest, so it must be published and discussed – true or false. Remember that Section 50 on the Penal Code Act on the publication of false news was nullified and abolished by the Supreme Court.  Justice Mulenga clearly stated why there could be value in publishing the so-called ‘false information.’ That means there is no crime these media houses committed. There is no justification for those measures. They are clearly illegal.

But it is also generally accepted that for the good of society, media should act responsibly. Don’t you suppose that there should be a balance between free media and responsible media?

Who determines what is responsible or not? For example, let’s say someone bought junk helicopters for our army. The government may say it is irresponsible to report it because it may expose our vulnerabilities to the enemy.  But another person may argue – and I think rightly – that it is irresponsible not to let Ugandans know about it so that corrective measures can be taken.

We need to be cautious when we talk about being responsible because in many countries governments use this excuse of ‘national security’ to defend their misdeeds or to save their faces from public scrutiny. My view is that media responsibility should be defined by professional ethics.  That is the forum where media responsibility should be defined, refined and enforced.  It is important that media have their own self-regulation mechanisms to ensure responsibility.

Yes, but you see the challenge is that the professional bodies are not there. There is a vacuum…?

But that vacuum was created by the government.   I will tell you why. For a long time, you had the Uganda Journalists Association (UJA), which under Namakajjo, was building capacity to ensure a strong media institution. Instead, the government created its own statutory body – the Media Council created by itself – to regulate the media.

These State bodies are intended to frustrate the effort toward self-regulation.  Also, the government has tried to infiltrate all the professional media bodies with their intelligence operatives. The effort of the Independent Media Council of Uganda is absolutely important, if it becomes operative.

Those who have complaints against irresponsible media would go to it and the media would show the public that it has mechanisms – not just reactive but pro-active mechanisms – to ensure responsibility. Also, individual media houses and journalists are not strong enough to face up to the State, so the importance of self-organisation cannot be over-emphasized.

The only other alternative is appeasing the government, which I think should not be tolerated by the media because you will be held at ransom and the claims will become bigger and bigger. So, the media need to strengthen through organization so that they are able to take concerted action.

Now, who are the victims of the current action on Monitor Publications and Red Pepper? Of course the immediate victims are the affected media houses and their audiences/readers, but we also know that every other media house is also a victim in terms of the ‘chilling effect.’

Everyone has to be cautious about what they are going to write or say on air. An example has been made of those media houses. The message is very clear.  If media don’t recognise this and act together, they will just be picked up one by one.

Some people say this recent government’s action was expected because President Museveni is keen to protect his family.  What is your take on that?

But don’t forget that at the core, President Museveni is a militarist. That is his constituency. The other things are peripheral. This Sejusa thing is touching on his family and his army, so he has to take a knee-jerk reaction.  But then, they tell us that this is a democratic country and not a military government.

If you want to do such things, then you declare openly that yours is a military government. But if you say that you are running the country democratically, then you can’t say it is criminal to criticise how the army is run or to discuss if or not your son is going to be your successor.

Like I said, all the political contradictions are not on the political front anymore but in the military core. So, there is no way the media can bring out these political contradictions without going there. If the military was at the peripheral and not at the centre of the succession debate, no one would bother going there.

So, in your view the ‘succession question’ has to be addressed and discussed by Ugandans now?

Absolutely, because it is very critical. Look at our history; there has never been a smooth transition in this country.  So it’s a legitimate matter to be reported and discussed by all Ugandans. You can’t run away from it, neither can you challenge it legally.  Whether it is Muhoozi or Mbabazi or whoever is next in the queue to be the successor, let the people and the media freely discuss all the possibilities.

So amid these attacks on freedom of expression, what should Ugandans do to protect their inherent and constitutional rights?

We need to realise that freedom of expression is only part of a spectrum of freedoms as encapsulated in Article 29 of the Constitution. It’s not possible to enjoy any one of those in isolation of the others. We need to make a concerted effort as Ugandans to ensure that we enjoy our rights and that nobody tramples upon them.

All segments of society – the media, CSO, Churches, even those who love President Museveni – should rise to protect him from these excesses. The State should be protector and not violator of these rights.

Do you see government versus media relations improving in the next few years?

No, why should it? The media must not knuckle under State pressure. The fact is that the relationship has always not been good. For example, the media have been directed on who not to employ, who not to host on their talk shows etc. All these threats have been there and the media practitioners know it.

The regulators such as UCC have for years been breathing down the necks of radio stations. That has to change. But it will not be changed by the government but by a better organised media fraternity and civil society.

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