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New Bill spells doom for Ugandan press freedom

By Jocelyn Edwards

On September 10th last year, police stormed the transmission room of the Baganda kingdoms Central Broadcasting Services (CBS) and carried away a link to the transmitter. The station suddenly went off the air.  Its licence had been revoked by the Broadcasting Council for allegedly stirring up tribal hatred and inciting the riots that killed around 30 people last fall in Kampala. Despite lobbying efforts by the station and civil society groups supporting it, six months later, the station still has not been allowed back on the air.

A bill that is now in the draft stages could see many print media houses in Uganda go the same way as CBS.  The proposed legislation, an amendment to the 1995 Press and Journalist Act, requires newspapers to be licensed yearly and allows the Media Council, the body charged with media regulation, to revoke the licences of those who publish anything deemed injurious to national security, Uganda’s relations with its neighbours or the economy.

The minister of information, Kabakumba Masiko, has insisted that the proposed legislation has nothing to do with the impending elections.  But journalists in Uganda fear that the Bill will erode the already tenuous freedom of the press in the nation even further and serve to clamp down on dissent as the 2011 approaches.  Peter Mwesige is the Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence. According to him, the amount of destruction the Bill would wrought on press freedom in Uganda would be akin to a tsunami in Kampala newsrooms. The Media Council could easily revoke or refuse to renew the licence of a newspaper accused of committing the new publication offences the Bill creates. And this could be done even before a competent court pronounces itself on whether the newspaper in fact committed those offences.

A publication’s license would be revoked for (a) publishing material prejudicial to national security, stability and unity; (b) publishing any matter that is injurious to Uganda’s relations with new neighbours or friendly countries; (c) publishing material that amounts to economic sabotage.

Ambiguous and yet wide-ranging in its language, the Bill could easily be used to revoke a publications licence anytime  it prints something the government doesnt like, points out Mwesige. Such provisions would be subject to subjective interpretation. What constitutes injury to national security? Who defines injury to national security? he asked.

The Bill endows the previously impotent Media Council with powers to grant and revoke newspaper licences. With the majority of its members chosen by the Minister of Information, the independence of the Council is already problematic. The proposed legislation further makes the chairman an appointee of the minister; currently the members of the Council vote to choose their own leader. Its this handpicked Council that would decide who gets to publish the news in Uganda and who does not.

Before granting a licence, the Council is to take into consideration, among other things, proof of existence of adequate technical facilities; and social, cultural and economic values of the newspaper. The ideological impetus behind the second consideration is obvious; the motivation behind the former may be less immediately evident. It appears that the government is worried that under the current law anybody can easily start a newspaper, said Mwesige. A person should be free to publish a newspaper whether they have state-of-the-art technology or not. Some of the newspapers that stood up to the oppressors of the past and highlighted human rights abuses were printed on rudimentary technology! Press freedom cant be the preserve of only those who have adequate technical facilities.

Dr George Lugalambi is the chairman of the Article 29 Coalition, made up of media and civil society groups committed to the value of press freedom expressed in Article 29 of the constitution. He explained that a key aspect of the Coalitions strategy to combat the law is letting people know that its not just professional reporters and editors that will be affected. We think its very important that the public appreciate that these amendments dont affect just the media, he said. It may not have just implications for the mainstream media; it may also have implications for community based groups that have causes to pursue and want their voices out there in the public. The moment you put out a publication for public consumption you might be bound.

Under the terms of the current law, a newspaper is sweepingly defined as any publication which contains all or any of the following— (i) news; (ii) articles; (iii) entertainment; (iv) advertisements; (v) reports of occurrences; (vi) views; and (vii) comments or observations which are published for distribution to the public either daily or periodically.

Media representatives say they believe its crucial to act quickly and kill the Bill in its infancy. Michael Wakabi is the Uganda Bureau Chief for the East African and chairman of the Uganda Chapter of the Eastern Africa Media Institute. Our experience shows that if you dont get these things before they reach parliament, its normally very difficult to change their course.

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