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Who will defend our freedoms?

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The government of Uganda has written a Media Law Amendment Bill which, even a committee composed of Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, Benito Mussolini and Pol Pot would find rather stringent. Yet it is not the law that I find the problem but rather the response of the stakeholders within Uganda society ‘ media owners, journalists, civil society and the wider public. Except for a workshop or two by the indefatigable Peter Mwesige, we have all largely been silent.

I admit entirely that I am a part of the problem. I am both a journalist and a media owner. Except for ‘exposing’ the Bill and its dangers in The Independent and calling a few media owners to ask them to build a united front against it, I have done little else to fight it. How can such a blatant attempt to kill us as professionals and our businesses not produce a collective organisation in defence of our rights especially given Uganda’s well known traditions of freewheeling debate?

It is in this context that Ibrahim Semujju, one of the best investigative reporters our nation had produced came to my office for a comment. A tenacious fighter for press freedom, Semujju was visibly angry at the Bill. What do you have to say about it, he asked me? As I have grown old and possibly stupid, I am less inclined to give obvious answers to such questions. I could rant about how anti-democratic President Yoweri Museveni has become. But that does not answer the challenge we are facing in the media.

Museveni’s political credibility has been declining. Although he has presided over a growing economy, blatant corruption, electoral theft, institutionalised incompetence and obvious nepotism have diminished his political appeal. He must therefore be feeling considerable political vulnerability even when the opposition is weak, disorganised and incoherent to master a serious challenge to his power.

From a purely rational perspective, it is necessary for the government to clampdown on independent media ahead of next year’s presidential elections. This is necessary to insulate the President and his cronies from public scrutiny. In short, he is doing what any rational politician would do in his circumstances. The challenge then is how can we stop him? Why do we talk, quarrel and shout but never do the most necessary thing: organise in collective defence of our liberties?

Across time and space, the development of democracy has been occasioned by the growth of civic associations and social movements to represent specific constituencies within a polity ‘ drivers, farmers, students, professionals (teachers, medical and industrial workers), vendors, hawkers and associations for small, medium and big businesses.

There are signs of the growth of these associations but they are still young and weak. Indeed, immediately before independence, Africa was teaming with social movements and pressure groups demanding political participation. After independence, most of these groups were either swallowed by the state or demobilised. Reconstructing them has been difficult. That is why associations representing journalists and media owners have been absent in the debate to reopen CBS.

In the place of a civil society born of the hard realities of our politics and social-economic life, our associational life has been taken over by NGOs. Yet the primary constituency of NGOs is not the intended beneficiaries of their activism but rather those who fund their work. NGOs are burdened with the responsibility of financial accountability to their donors instead of accounting to those they intend to serve. This has disarticulated activists from their constituencies.

The penetration of foreign aid ‘ as money, as activism, as peace keepers, as technical assistance etc ‘ has demobilised local initiative and in many ways undermined the evolution of democratic participation. For example, it seems to me Ugandan journalists and media owners are waiting for Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders to defend our right to free expression.

The result of such expectations is that we have sat on our hands waiting for the next indicting report of Uganda from these groups or for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and David Cameron to issue a statement condemning the Bill. And then what these people say will be front page news. Yet until the front page news is a mass demonstration by the concerned in defence of our rights, or a meeting of government and journalists, our freedoms will remain compromised by our inaction.

Although international moral solidarity is important, we should not be blind to its unintended consequences on how we organise our polities. The last time we sought to form a journalist association, Friedrich Ebert Foundation offered to fund it. I strongly objected to this because Ugandan journalists should be willing to ‘invest’ i.e. sacrifice their personal income for the pursuit of our collective interest. If we are not willing to sacrifice for our future, we do not deserve foreign help.

And it is not just the weakness of journalist associations. Across Uganda, the public healthcare, education and road system has literally fallen apart. Every morning I drive amidst thousands of cars whose occupants have to endure potholes, floods and traffic congestion. Behind these wheels are our nation’s middle and upper classes. Why does such inconvenience not produce collective organisations to correct the dysfunction?

More than the authoritarian trappings of the state in Uganda, I think it is the democratic content of our government that explains our institutional failures. For example, there is a bargain between the elite class here and the state; instead of public money serving the public good (like building good schools, roads and hospitals) it is used to buy private goods (individual mansions, luxury cars, expensive holidays, medical evacuation and private education for our children abroad).

The collusion of those in the state with those in the private sector to steal public funds has allowed the elite in Uganda to remain comfortable with the infrastructural crisis we are facing. To alter this bargain may involve a level of harshness that a democratic process cannot sustain. How many Ugandans are willing to risk their liberties (to break the law, build in wetlands, evade taxes, drive recklessly, steal public funds, etc) in the name of an uncertain but better future?

amwenda@independent.co.ug

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