Uganda: pressed for freedom
Threats and intimidation against journalists in the Republic of Uganda are commonplace. A proposed new media law as well as next year’s presidential elections could mean more bad news for reporters and whole media outlets in the country. The proposed new laws are ‘draconian,’ says Andrew Mwenda, right, editor of the Independent magazine.
Friday, 20 August 2010, by Ida Berg Slang
During the reign of Idi Amin (1971-1979), Ugandan press was under total control by the government. Freedom of expression was not at all granted, and while persecution of those challenging the limits to what could be expressed was unsystematic, it was all the more brutal when set in motion. Amin was merciless to those daring to oppose his omnipotent regime.
A blessing in disguise
When Yoweri Museveni later ousted Milton Obote and seized power by means of a guerilla war in 1986, reforms were made and the future looked less gloomy for Ugandan media. Then, in the 1990ies, media monopolies were broken, media laws were changed and, in particular, several independent radio stations were established. In power ever since 1986, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) has issued a large number of licences to new radio stations, for them to start broadcasting. However, at the same time, the same regime has also passed a series of increasingly repressive laws in the field of freedom of opinion, expression, and the media. Hence, many of the new broadcasters have had to cancel their operations, not because they don’t make a profit, but because of the excessive license fees that have been introduced.
The opening of the air space to private radio broadcasts has also generated a more principled debate on why this actually happened in the first place. While the initial move by the Museveni regime was welcomed by both Ugandans and the international community alike as a significant step towards enhancing and consolidating the country’s freedom of expression, critics have since been proven right that this might not have been the genuine purpose. Instead, as Human Rights Network Uganda has suggested, the main motivation might just as well have been commercial; upon realising that private, corporate broadcasting is also a business, and potentially with good money to be made.
The constant manipulation of the media field, the issuing and withdrawing of licences, overall clearly biased towards keeping Museveni friendly radio stations on the air while bringing others off, the selective charging of exorbitant licence fees, the growing number of charges against ‘misbehaving’ media institutions or individual journalists and editors, the intimidation of media outlets to take certain programmes off the air, change others and sack certain journalists, the banning of certain programme categories, and the persecution, even, of certain callers to the radio stations, who have had their opinions aired, all suggest that the opening of the air space was always a blessing in disguise, and that the authorities’ intentions were never to facilitate further freedom of expression, but rather to please the international donor / diplomacy community and bring the oppositional voices out in the open, so as more easily to track them down and shut them up.
As a result, the number of independent radio stations in Uganda is actually now decreasing. Even existing radio stations that are considered “free” and private (not government owned), are in real terms under the control of Museveni. Government ministers, parliamentarians, and business people with established connections to the ruling party own a large number of radio stations. Some claim that there are no truly free and independent radio stations left in Uganda.
Inconsistent policies, multiple strategies
As a signatory to numerous international declarations, resolutions, charters, principles and actual legislation, Uganda has repeatedly committed itself to respect the right to freedom of expression of all persons. In domestic legislation as well, Uganda stresses the principles of human rights in general and freedom of speech in particular. The constitution itself has strong and explicit provisions for freedom of expression for everybody. However, several of the country’s national laws are inconsistent with these obligations. For instance, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Uganda did as numerous other countries and passed an anti-terrorism act that was, at least officially, intended to curb terrorist activity in the country. Oppositional media, however, has accused Ugandan authorities of using this act to mute unwanted media.
In addition, the government has formed a special police unit called the media and political crimes unit, to help bring ´dangerous´ voices to silence. Hence, in real life, there’s a growing discrepancy between the principles of the constitution on the one hand, and how the country’s many laws are being drawn upon whenever the authorities find it necessary, on the other. In addition, in the authorities’ attempts to suppress critical voices, vaguenesses in the national laws are exploited. The practitioners of the law have wide authority and autonomy to practice the laws. As a result, legal practice in the field of the media is often in direct conflict with the country’s constitutional laws and international obligations, without this ever seeming to cause any kind of concern on the authorities’ side. On the contrary, after so many years of this being the situation, one might rather suspect them of leaving it like this on purpose.
In recent years, there has been a significant increase in cases where journalists have been threatened by the authorities, and with references, more often than not, to whichever law they find applicable. Since the previous political campaigns in 2005, more than 30 independent journalists have been summoned by the police or charged with crimes such as sedition, incitement to violence, and promoting sectarianism. Often, these charges were levied for criticizing the government or reporting views of those who are critical of the ruling party.
The creativity of legislators in muting journalists does not stop there, though. Of all the countries in East Africa, Uganda has the highest number of court cases against journalists and the media. A number of media related cases, most of them on sedition, are pending in the High Court. The number of cases pending is constantly so high, that one may suspect the authorities of keeping cases pending a strategy in its own right, thereby maintaining the threat to the journalists, editors and media in question. According to the 2005 World Press Freedom Review By International Press Institute, journalists complained that government uses outdated colonial era laws to silence the media on sensitive matters. Five years later, this situation remains unchanged, and with no signs of improvement. On the contrary, intimidation and threats against journalists have become commonplace.
According to a report published by Human Rights Watch in May, supporters of Uganda’s ruling party, including party officials, are indeed threatening and intimidating journalists on a regular, and increasing basis. The report, “A Media Minefield: Increased Threats to Freedom of Expression in Uganda”, documents multiple recent cases in which Ugandan journalists have faced increasing threats from government officials and NRM party members, intimidation, harassment, and in some instances government-inspired criminal charges. Human Rights Watch concludes that Uganda’s media regulatory system is partisan and does not tolerate criticism of the governing party.
During riots in Kampala in September 2009 that left at least 40 people dead, Ugandan police and soldiers beat and detained journalists who were trying to report on unfolding events or discuss the cause of the riots on the radio. The government also shut down four Kampala radio stations, including the Central Broadcasting Service (CBS), a radio station owned by the Buganda Kingdom. The entire genre of open-air broadcasting known as ‘bimeeza,’ a popular forum for public debate, was banned. The ban remains in force, and CBS has yet to be allowed to return to the airwaves.
Human Rights Watch found that local authorities, in attempts to intimidate local journalists reporting on politics and ruling party operatives, repeatedly referred to the state’s response to the Kampala riots. The local officials threatened rural radio reporters with violence, arrest, and station closings for reporting on what they considered “controversial” local issues. One journalist and talk-show host based outside Kampala and broadcasting in a local language told Human Rights Watch that security officials and NRM members had threatened him three times in the last year over the content of his programming. Most recently, he was warned that the subject of discussion had been “inappropriate”, and he was threatened by the area’s chief ruling party mobilizer, saying “We don’t want to hear any of that. You can disappear and no one will know where we have taken you”.
In May this year, Daniel Kalinaki, managing editor of the opposition newspaper the Daily Monitor and Henry Ochieng, editor of the paper’s Sunday edition as well as journalists from other oppositional press were charged with forging a letter written by President Yoweri Museveni. The letter appeared in the Sunday Monitor 2 August 2009, and the two journalists were accused by the government of having changed some sections of the letter in a version which they had published in the paper. The court hearing ended after the defense attorney asked to be given a copy of the actual letter as evidence of the claim made in the charge.
Also in May, two people who participated in a radio phone-in programme were summoned by police in connection with utterances they allegedly made during a talk show on Better FM, a local radio station. The two were summoned after having demanded Government to release a report about the death of the former secretary of the Defence Ministry, Brig Noble Mayombo, who died in 2007 without any official reason given as the cause of his death. It is alleged that Mayombo, who also sat in the board of The Vision Group, which publishes the New Vision newspaper, was poisoned.
In July, a Ugandan journalist working for the New Vision newspaper was attacked and beaten by a government official. This happened only a month after a Daily Monitor journalist was attacked in Kampala by several police men, after taking pictures of them beating up the leading opposition party leader Dr. Kizza Besigye. Also in July, the two radio stations, Busoga Inter-District Adventists Organisation-Maranatha FM Jinja and Faith FM Mbale were closed for failure to renew their broadcasting licenses.
In the same month, the media house Record Network sacked 12 journalists. A total of 32 journalists have had their contracts terminated by the media house in just nine months according to the Uganda Journalists Union (UJU). The reason given to the employees was that “the company was undergoing a Fiscal reconstruction”. It is suspected, however, that there is also, or rather, a more political reason, and that the order may come from above, from somewhere within the state bureaucracy.
New media law - more bad news
Outside of the capital, local officials use both informal and formal power to silence the media. Threats can be open and public such as in Gulu district in Northern Uganda, where the deputy resident district commissioner publicly threatened to “eliminate” an individual journalist for his reporting on the activities of an opposition party. Even though these threats were made publicly, there has been no police investigation, and the official was not disciplined. Other threats to rural-based journalists are more subtle and covert, such as ruling party members calling or visiting journalists and intimating violence if a particular story is pursued. In some instances, the police have even detained journalists who seek information about the police’s failure to investigate crimes.
This rather unruly situation may be part of the backdrop for the Government’s wish to centralize and further increase its control over the media. Earlier this year, the so-called Press and Journalist (Amendment) Bill 2010 was tabled. If enacted and made law, the Bill will give the Ministry of Information and National Guidance more powers to control the media. It will give the minister powers not only to appoint the bulk of the membership of the Media Council but also its chairperson. If the Bill is passed in parliament, the Media Council will be able to regulate the newspapers by registering them and giving them (or refuse to give them) annually renewable licenses. The Media Council will also be given powers to regulate both foreign media ownership, a strategy that has been applied to sidestep Ugandan media laws, and investment by print media owners in the industry, once again to maintain independence.
Although the Bill has yet to be tabled before the full Parliament, journalists in the country are concerned about the contents of a leaked draft Bill, currently under discussion by Cabinet. Annual licensing of newspapers and strict controls on what newspapers can publish are proposed. The draft Bill calls for punishment to any newspaper that dares publish news that injures the country’s relations with its neighbors or causes economic sabotage. It does not go any further, though, to define what is meant by economic sabotage and injuring relationships. Furthermore, licenses could be revoked at will in the interest of “national security, stability and unity”, or if coverage was deemed to be ‘economic sabotage’. The council may also deny licenses based on factors such as “social, cultural and economic values of the newspaper,” and “proof of existence of adequate technical facilities.” Such requirements would, if enacted, in effect ensure that only well-funded media houses sharing the values of government officials are allowed to publish.
As for the individual journalists, the Bil proposes that they will have to prove that they are qualified (education/degree), and also that their criminal record is clean. Professor Fredrick Jjuuko, a media law expert says such provisions violate the constitution, and that this new bill is making freedom of expression available only for those with a university degree. This is unfair, says Jjuuko, since the constitution provides for a freedom of expression for everybody. Andrew Mwenda, a seasoned journalist and profiled editor of the magazine the Independent, describes the law as ‘draconian’ as it seeks to further repress the media from criticizing the government. Mwenda adds that the government is in effect undermining the entire legitimacy of the press. If the Bill is made law, he explains, people will turn to the rapidly growing undergrowth of blogs and other alternative sources of information.
Information Minister Kabakumba Masiko recently expressed that the government is indeed ready to compromise on the proposed amendments to the press law in the country. Speaking at a round-table discussion organized by the Uganda Human Rights Commission, Masiko said they will listen to all opinion before the bill is tabled in parliament. A day before, Masiko had said the bill will be passed and no one will stop them from doing so. At the same round table, Livingstone Sewanyana, Executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative Uganda, reminded the audience of the media’s important role as the ‘fourth estate’ of governance. Sewanyana also emphasised how laws brought up in bad faith would not only impact on the media – but the entire government.
Elections coming up
Ugandan media’s experience is that violations against journalists get worse during elections. According to Human Rights Watch, many journalists have admitted that the upcoming election compels them to avoid certain stories that they fear will get them into trouble with the authorities or might cause station owners to be pressured to fire them. When violations occur, the authorities can claim the necessity of putting in place new laws and stricter regulations. Then they can more easily implement unpopular laws that are silencing oppositional voices and thus violating Ugandans’ constitutionally established freedom of speech. By such means they can use their power to suppress the media more subtly. The way they do this seems more ‘sophisticated’ than earlier – as seen with the new proposed Media Bill with compulsory registration of radio stations each year – proposed just in the build-up to the 2011 elections.
Meanwhile, Angello Izama, right, a journalist for the opposition newspaper the Daily Monitor, is expected to face charges over the article he wrote in a recent edition of Sunday edition, entitled; “Preparing for the 2011 election by arming troops”. The article was an interview of the different political figures in the country about their perception of the forthcoming elections in 2011. The article irked the president who complained that it will scare away investors in the country, forcing the police to take action. The Monitor, Uganda’s second largest circulation, has been at the forefront of a number of court cases aimed at cracking down their independence and also threatening them from reporting some sensitive issues.
It remains to be seen whether the Ugandan press will be able to cover the elections in a satisfactory way, or if the Museveni administration will revert to dubious methods of curbing the press. That could create more tension among an already frustrated opposition, and make it even more difficult to be an independent reporter in the country.
“A Media Minefield: Increased threats to Freedom of Expression in Uganda”, Human Rights Watch, May 2010
Human Rights Watch Press release
Uganda: Human Rights Status Report, 2006
EAJA Media Freedom Alerts & Up-dates
Ida Berg Slang