By Patrick Kagenda
Why journalists are under attack
Robert Kabushenga, Paul Kihika, Andrew Mwenda, Agnes Asiimwe Konde, James Tumusiime, Alex Asiimwe, Richard Tusiime. These five men and one woman have something in common. President Yoweri Museveni fears them – or at least the work they and their staff do. They are the heads of the leading media houses in Uganda. They head the Vision Group, Uganda Broadcasting Corporation,The Independent Publications Ltd, NTV, The Observer, Monitor Publications Ltd, and Red Pepper respectively.
These are the men and women, together with their staff, who President Museveni wants to hold on a leash with new punitive regulations introduced by Minister of information and National Guidance Rose Namayanja.
But can anyone believe that Museveni needs to fear these men and women? The question, therefore, is why he actually does fear them?
It is an old story that started on July 28, 1995. It was election time. On that day a new law came into force. It is called the Press and Journalist Act.
Its official purpose: “To ensure the freedom of the press, to provide for a council responsible for the regulation of mass media, and to establish an institute of journalists of Uganda.
Its unofficial goal: To introduce a body called the National Institute of journalists of Uganda (NIJU) that would hold the proverbial sword of Damocles over the heads of journalists. NIJU’s tool of oppression would be the power to license or refuse to license a journalist.
Barely a year later, on May 9, 1996, presidential elections were held and President Museveni won with 74% of the votes cast.
Soon after that, the government discovered a loophole. During the election campaigns, opposition politicians had campaigned on radio and TV stations. That had to stop. On June 21, 1996, it brought another law, the Electronic Media Act, which set up the Broadcasting Council to license and regulate TV stations and radio stations.
On September 19, 1997, another law was introduced. The Uganda Communications Act was, officially, to liberalise the communications industry. In reality, it effectively locked the opposition off public communication channels. This law was reinforced on September 15, 2000 just a few months to another election. Six months later, on March 15, 2001, presidential elections were held. Museveni again won by 69%.
Just before another election, on May 20, 2005, another law was passed. The Uganda Broadcasting Act was to establish the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation. In the same year, then minister of Information, Basoga Nsadhu, announced a ban on the popular radio bazaars called Ebimeeza. Seven months later, on February 23, 2006, a presidential election was held. Museveni again won by 59% of the vote.
Then again, just before another election, on January 29, 2010, the proposed Press and Journalist (Amendment) Bill 2010 was placed before Cabinet. It sought to tighten the noose of the 1995 law around journalists. About one year later on February 18, 2011, a presidential election was held. Museveni again won by 68%.
Is that a coincidence or calculated move that whenever a national election nears, the government moves to clampdown on the media?
It is clear that while the government will usually not lock up journalists or media houses because of what they publish against it, Museveni’s officials act, harshly act against them if they appear to report on the opposition favourably or allow Museveni’s opponents airtime on TV or radio.
Targeting 2016 elections
The latest move stated on July 2, 2012, when the Director of Information in the Office of the Prime Minister announced plans to re-introduce the Press and journalist Amendment Bill 2010 that had been shelved after it was criticised by local and international human rights organisations.
A local NGO, the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), had written in 2007: “Restrictive legislation governing the operation of the media and provisions criminalising particular acts by the media severely restrict journalists’ and broadcasters’ freedom and right to seek, receive, and impart information and the public’s right to access such information. This in turn harms individuals’ ability to fully exercise their rights and responsibilities in a multiparty democracy.”
This time, the government was determined to short-cut any debate and avoid criticism.
On Feb.10, the Minister of Information, Rose Namayanaja, smuggled in the Press and journalist (Fees) Regulation, 2014, through what is called a statutory instrument (SI).
In parliamentary business, a SI is a tool that the executive can use to introduce or amend a rule, regulation, or order, without letting parliament debate it. The logic for the SI is that there are some issues that are obvious and do not require debate. Obviously Namayanja’s draconian law requires debate and MPs should possibly demand it.
On the face of it, the regulations appear benign.
Journalists would have to be registered, just as other professionals are – doctors, architects, teachers, etcetera, are registered. The journalists would have to be licensed, just as other professions are licensed. They would have to pay for membership to a professional body; NIJU, and get an annual license. Other professions do this. So what is the problem?
The problem is that the proposed body, the National Institute of Journalists in Uganda (NIJU) is not a journalists’ body in the same way, for example, that the Uganda Law Society is for lawyers. NIJU is a club of journalists with university degrees. They do not even have to be practicing journalists. Yet under the new registration requirements, membership to NIJU by journalists is not voluntary but compulsory by law. That is why it has been resisted since 1995.
Under the new law introduced by Namayanja, each journalist is required to pay Shs 350,000 in registration fees to another body; the Uganda Media Council.
Kabushenga’s New Vision, Kihika’s UBC, and Alex Asiimwe’s Monitor employ most journalists in Uganda. However, even if only the small FM radio stations with limited staff paid up to the Media Council, the body would collect over Shs 1 billion every year. Journalists will effectively become the Media Council’s cash cow. Unfortunately, unlike other professions, this money doesn’t even go into activities that enhance journalism.
The Media Council has 13 members, five of whom are directly appointed by the minister, four are members of the public, one represents the Uganda Law Society, and two are NIJU representatives. The Media Council was also set up by the 1995 Press and Journalist law. To oppose it, some individuals set up the Independent Media Council of Uganda (IMCU).
It is mandated to mediate between journalists, media houses, and the public. Ironically, however, for a person to bring a complaint, they pay Shs 10,000 to the Media Council. But, in order to file a response, the accused media house or journalist must pay $2,000 (about Shs 5 million). It does not matter if they are guilty or innocent.
Journalists also have another body, the Uganda Media Centre, monitoring their activities. It is also appointed by the government.
The Uganda Police also has a special unit, the Media Crimes Department, to monitor and regulate journalists. The question is what does the government fear of journalists?
The Press & Journalists (Fees) Regulation 2014, which came into force on February 10, is the latest in a series of draconian regulations that Museveni’s government has unleashed against journalists and media houses.
As in the past, the new regulations come in the shadow of the looming presidential and parliamentary elections slated for February 2016.
The new regulations have put journalists in a tight spot.
The multiple licenses, registration, and certification requirements and fees have created undue burdens on the media industry.
Journalists do not know what to oppose and fight any more; the new high fees, having to answer to a government-appointed Media Council of individuals who are not and have never been journalists, or the proverbial sword of Damocles that of having a license that can be withdrawn at any moment by the government.
George William Lugalambi, a former head of Makerere University’s Department of Mass Communication, is equally puzzled.
“I don’t understand the motive behind this regulation,” he told The Independent in an interview, “it seems the agents of the State seem not to appreciate the role the media.”
Lugalambi said although the fees Namayanja proposes have been in the law, he does not think they are legitimate.
“They were opposed and I am wondering why the minister is bringing them back,” he said.
Lugalambi added: “Journalists work for entities that are registered and pay taxes and news gathering is not a one-man issue because it goes through processes before it becomes a final product called news. Imposing the fees would mean involving everyone involved in the news processing which would be unnecessary and uncalled for.”
Lugalambi’s observation is pertinent, especially in the constantly changing face of journalism and mass media in Uganda and the world at large.
For example, where does the new law leave websites, blogs, twitterati, radio and TV DJs, and presenters and others who report news?
Lugalambi is also concerned about the new high fees.
“Government needs to know the work of a journalist. If you impose a financial burden on journalists, it means they will reduce on competence and scope of reach.
“Subscriptions to professional bodies are voluntary and not mandatory, that should be the case for Journalists joining NIJU but not forcing them to join the body. There is no need of monetising the profession.”
Another expert, Peter Mwesige (PhD), who heads the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), says in a commentary on its website that journalists should oppose the new regulation. He also offers a word of caution.
“The way I see it though, journalists are not seeing the forest for the trees,” says Mwesige. “The real debate should not be on the new fees but on the law under which they have been imposed.”
Mwesige, who is also a former head of the Mass Communication Department at Makerere University, says journalists, human rights organisations, and the public could support a petition filed on March 14 against another law; the Press and Journalists Act, Cap 105 by the Centre for Public Interest Law (CEPIL), the Human Rights Network for Journalists and the Eastern Africa Media Institute.
The trio, acting as the Partnership for a Free and Independent Media, argue that the law violates the freedoms of speech, expression, the press and other media, as contained in Article 29 of the Constitution, as well as other key provisions that provide for protection of fundamental human rights.
Experts in the media industry say the new regulation could be an attempt to further gag journalists and the media.
In the short run, the public could be aloof because the myriad new regulations appear to be only designed to threaten journalists and deny some of them jobs. But owners of media houses need to fear too – the new regulations could raise the cost of hiring staff as workers who fear reprisals from the government either ask for higher risk salaries or produce substandard self-censored work that is rejected by the market.
But it is the quiet public that has the most to fear. It is the long-term chilling effect of the new regulation that Ugandans need to fear. Newspapers and magazines, TVs and radio stations, and access to the Internet are the external signs of freedom of expression and democracy. Without them, a nation is dead. Namayanja just struck another blow to the media. Will it be fatal? In the short-run, a lot depends on how Kabushenga, Mwenda, Konde, Tumusiime, Tusiime, and Asiimwe react. In the end, however, it is all up to Ugandans to decide whether they want news media and democracy or news blackouts and dictatorship.