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Is UCC going rogue?

MPs opposed to the deletion of Article 102 (b) from the Constittution sing at Parliament days before their protest degenerated into a brawl INDEPENDENT/JIMMY SIYA

Parliament to probe communications regulator over its media cuts and bans

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | What, really, is the mandate of the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC)?

On its face, UCC’s mandate appears clear; it is the country’s communications regulatory agency. It is supposed to promote and safeguard the interests of consumers and operators on quality. However, there is a growing view that UCC does not have the legal mandate to do some of the things it has been doing instead. Critics point out that the space for free speech is shrinking because the state uses the law selectively to determine what can and cannot pass.

The matter has become so urgent that the Parliamentary Committee on Commissions, State Authorities and State Enterprises (COSASE) has it on its agenda.

A member of the committee, Medard Lubega Sseggona, who is the MP for Busiiro South, says as soon as there is opportunity, COSASE will summon UCC officials to explain why they are engaged in certain activities that appear to be outside the agency’s mandate.

He told The Independent in an interview that UCC has moved beyond regulation to become a repressive agency and cited incidents in which UCC has blocked social media access, stopped media houses from covering certain political events, and either closed or threatened to close media outlets that give a platform to opponents of the ruling NRM party.

“What Mutabazi is doing is in effect criminal,” Sseggona says in reference to Godfrey Mutabazi, the UCC executive director, “the rate at which UCC is denying Ugandans access to information and professionals the right to practice their trade is alarming and deplorable.”

The Human Rights Network for Journalists Uganda (HRNJ-U) also says it is going to court to seek interpretation on the mandate of UCC.

Robert Ssempala, the HRNJ-U national coordinator told The Independent that his organization is reacting to UCC’s recent directive to media houses to stop live broadcasts of MPs exchanging punches on Sept.26 in parliament.

“We don’t know if they are doing this deliberately or there is pressure behind them but one thing is for sure; what UCC is doing is absolutely wrong; it is illegal and illegitimate,” Ssempala told The Independent.

Tempers flared in Parliament on Sept.26 over a controversial motion to delete Article 102 (b) that limits the age of presidential candidates from the Constitution.

Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, was compelled to abruptly adjourn the House after opposition MPs disrupted Igara West MP, Raphael Magyezi, from moving a motion on removing the presidential age limit. The pro-age limit MPs sang and made other noises for close to 20 minutes inside the Parliament Chambers until Kadaga sent the House packing.

Security personnel entered the chambers and dragged rowdy MPs out when they attempted a repeat the next day. Despite Mutabazi’s ban on live broadcast, images of MPs being battered, fighting with microphones, and throwing parliament furniture at each other were beamed around the world.

UCC’s minimum broadcasting standards in regard to violence and crime state that any suggestions that justice can be achieved by violence, vigilante action, or other means of taking law enforcement into one’s own hands; should be avoided. Any exceptions must take into account the context and redeeming values. Such depictions of violence may frighten, unnerve, unsettle or invite imitation, especially from children.

Broadcasters react

Fred Otunnu, UCC’s director of Corporate Affairs told The Independent that live coverage of events is supposed to be managed differently to avoid putting out undesirable content. UCC says broadcasting brawls by MPs incites the public, is discriminatory, stirs up hatred, and promotes a culture of violence amongst the viewers. It is likely to create public insecurity or violence.

Otunnu says broadcast houses everywhere in the world have equipment that delay relay of such content by a micro-second.

“That micro-second is important in broadcasting,” he said because it helps in editing out scenes that are not desirable for viewers’ consumption.

“The UCC directive was a reminder for broadcasters to enforce that,” Otunnu says.

The UCC wrote in its directive to broadcasting houses: “The commission hereby directs all broadcasters to immediately stop and refrain from broadcasting live feeds which are in breach of the minimum broadcasting standards and the best practice guidelines for electronic media coverage/reporting and broadcasting of live events.”

It added: “The commission would not hesitate to carry out enforcement for non-compliance with these guidelines and any further breach will result in suspension and revocation of your licence in accordance with Section 41 of the Uganda Communications Act 2013.”

But some media executives were in disagreement with the ban saying Parliament is a public space and should, therefore, be opened to live media broadcasts.

In a letter dated Sept. 29, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) responded to Mutabazi’s letter saying freedom of expression is a cardinal principle enshrined in the Constitution of Uganda under Article 29.

“It is a fact that live broadcasting does not depict falsehoods but rather is an account of actuality: It is our view that the messenger should not bear the brunt of any such factual message for which the public has a right to see and hear.”

“We are yet to see (and we welcome the same) evidence of incitement, as alleged, arising from these live broadcasts, with an introspective view of the other mediums to which the public is exposed where violence is a staple feature (films, television programmes and stage plays).”

“As you may recall in 2011, NAB entered into a memorandum of understanding with the UCC with respect to live broadcasting.”

The broadcasters’ association had also received complaints from its members who operate upcountry harassment, intimidation and in extreme cases, closure by the government operatives.

The letter noted that the memorandum detailed the manner and conduct broadcasters would implement in covering live events also noting that the broadcasters had diligently obliged to the memorandum which should continue guiding their operations.

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