Human Rights Network Uganda concerned about oppression of the media

In a statement released today, HURINET Uganda expresses concern that the government of Republic of Uganda has systematically moved to oppress and muzzle media freedom and freedom of speech using draconian laws and institutions. -We are disturbed by the proposed legislation, says HURINET, who speaks on behalf of 35 Ugandan human rights organisations from across the country. read the full statement below.

THE STATE MUST STOP CONTINUED VIOLATION OF MEDIA FREEDOMS AND HUMAN RIGHTS

HURINET-U is concerned that the government of Uganda has systematically moved to oppress and muzzle media freedom and freedom of speech using draconian laws and institutions. We are disturbed by the proposed legislationWe are disturbed by the proposed legislations such as the Press and Journalists (amendment) Bill 2010, and the Electronic Media Act which directly affect press freedom. Similarly the unchecked use of government agencies to
censure media content is unacceptable.

The laws on the media and other laws have given state agencies to act with impunity as witness in September 2009 when the broadcasting council using the Electronic Media Act closed 5 radio stations, caused the suspension of journalists without giving them a fair hearing and banned open air broadcasts (Ebimeza). We also note with concern the use of penal laws such as criminal sedition and offences relating to publications have continued unhindered. Various journalists face criminal charges because of their work. All this has helped cripple media freedom and the freedom of speech.

Since the beginning of the year, media freedom has progressively been eroded by government and its agencies, through draconian laws and state agencies acting with impunity. Several journalists have been charged with offences relating with their work and violating media freedom. On 29th January 2010 the Press and Journalists Amendment Bill 2010 was introduced to cabinet for debate. Similarly on the 15th march 2010, the minister in charge of communication made a directive to have the Uganda Communications Commission and the Broadcasting Council merged following a cabinet decision. An act that violates democratic principles of separation of powers between parliament and the executive and is likely to lead to increased muzzling of media freedom. On the 26th April 2010 the state order media houses to apologize for hosting opposition politicians. The above developments have serious consequences for media freedom and the enjoyment of human rights in Uganda.

Key issues of concern in media freedom in Uganda
The Press and Journalist Amendment Bill 2010
The Press and Journalist Bill 2010 seeks to increase state control over media houses through setting up regulatory mechanisms which are aimed at muzzling the operation of print media in Uganda. The proposed Bill has provisions that reduce the participation of professionals in the control and discipline of journalists and puts such a role in the hands of persons appointed by the minister; the Bill provides for a person to prove that he/she has technical capacity before he/she is licensed to run a newspaper such a move is intended to limit the number of new entrants in the print industry and violates the freedom of speech and press as set out under article 29(1)(a) and (b) of the Uganda constitution and article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Under the Bill every newspaper has to be registered and is required to renew its license on a yearly basis. The bill also provides that the Media Council can cancel a license for a newspaper if the publications of the newspapers are considered to be promoting immorality, economic sabotage or
a conflict with Uganda’s neighbors.

HURINET -U is concerned that this is likely to violate freedom of press since the same law does not set standards as to what amounts to morality or economic sabotage. The provisions for licensing media houses and controlling content on what should be published directly affects the freedom of speech, media, association, right to access information all guaranteed under the Uganda constitution.

The merger between the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and the Broadcasting Council (BC)
We are also concerned that on the 15th of March 2009, the Minister of Information and Communication Technology ordered a merger of the UCC and the BC two bodies established by law in Uganda. The merger brings about legal and constitutional issues with significant effect to the rule of law and media freedom.

The merger did not follow the amendment of the Uganda Communications Commission Act and the Electronic Media Act which provide for the two bodies. The Minister was in effect amending
two laws –an act that violates article 79 of the Uganda constitution which lays out the principle of separation of powers. The merger also makes the new transitional body an investigating and complaint handling body for matters in the industry which compromises its neutrality and is likely to violate the right to fair hearing established under articles 28 and 42 of the Constitution and the provisions of fair hearing under the UDHR and ICCPR.

Order for radio stations to apologize for hosting opposition politicians
On the 26th April 2010 the state order media houses to apologize for hosting opposition politicians. The order is directed to radios in Northern Uganda that hosted Olara Otunu a leader of the opposition who is said to have claimed that President Museveni was responsible for the war in northern Uganda. Government threatened to take punitive action against the radio stations if no public apology is given. HURINET -U is concerned that the move to warn radio stations to
apologize is aimed at intimidating media houses from hosting opposition politicians as we head to national elections in 2011 hence affecting equal participation in the democratic process. HURINET -U is also concerned that the move will see radio stations punished for acts and omissions done by people not under the control of the media. This violates the principle of fair trial as laid out in article 28 of the Uganda constitution. Particularly the move violates the presumption of innocence, the principle that no person can be charged of an offence committed by another person and the freedoms of speech, media and association.

It should be noted that media practitioners and agencies deserve to operate independently in a conducive environment supported by the state as laid down in the National, Regional and International laws that Uganda has ratified.

We would like to remind government that;
The media deals with important issues affecting the country and it is one avenue where government is subjected to public scrutiny and accounts to the people. Freedom of expression is a key prerequisite of a democracy and the state is expected to ensure that it prevails.
The ongoing onslaught on the media affects its professionalism as it demands media publications to conform to regime interest as opposed to truthful reporting. Matters of state security are of concern to everyone and therefore it is the duty of the press to expose any
weaknesses in them so that the organs of the state can improve.

Recommendations
1. The government of Uganda should withdraw the proposed amendment to the Press and journalist Act since these constitute additional threats to media freedom in Uganda.
2. The government of Uganda and its agencies should respect freedom of speech and expression which include freedom of press and other media as provided for in the Uganda constitution and other international human rights instruments. The government of Uganda should recognize and respect its duties and obligations imposed upon it by Article 20(2) of the Constitution: “The rights and freedoms of the individual and groups enshrined in the Constitution are to be respected, upheld and promoted by all groups and agencies of government…”
3. The government of Uganda should respect the autonomy of the media practitioners and institutions as this forms the basis of an open society which is pertinent in fostering a democratic society.
4. The government of Uganda, Civil Society Organizations and the Media should work together to develop self regulatory systems for the media industry to promote a free and profession media in Uganda.
5. Parliament of Uganda should Repeal and amend laws that are inconsistent with media freedom. Specifically the government should repeal penal code provisions on false news, sedition, publication of false news and all sections curtailing media freedom.
6. The civil society, international agencies and the media should advocate for fair media laws and join campaigns to call upon the government of Uganda to withdraw the proposed amendment and to comply with media freedom standards acceptable in a free democratic society.
7. HURINET -U calls upon the European Union Delegation in Uganda and all members of the European Union to use their relation with the government of Uganda to demand for respect of media freedom and protection of journalist as human rights defenders as required of them by the EU guidelines on the protection of human rights defenders.
…………………………..
Mr. Ndifuna Mohammed
National Coordinator
HURINET Uganda

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