Press freedom in Uganda on trial again?

Press freedom in Uganda, often said to be the best of the region’s bad lot, is quickly losing its status. It’s been slipping down into the bottom of the ranks. Earlier this year, international media group, Reporters Without Borders, released their press freedom index and Uganda dropped not two or three places – but a whole 43 to land at 139th place.

The dramatic drop was attributed to a declining relationship between police and the press, triggered by the walk-to-work protests last year.

According to Human Rights Network for Journalists Uganda (HRNJU), there were 107 attacks on journalists in the span of one year – 39 of which were reported in the last six months.

Under the name of keeping law and order, police interventions included physical attacks, arrests and detention, shootings, denying access to news scenes, confiscation of equipment, defective and trumped up charges and verbal threats, HRNJU says in its Freedom of Expression and Information Country Status report.

Mixed messages

On Press Freedom Day last week, IGP Kale Kayihura addressed a rally honouring the day, and spoke of the police’s commitment to press freedom. But at the same time he said the media has been biased and unprofessional towards police.

After Daily Monitor reporter Isaac Kasamani alleged that security forces shot at him while covering a protest in January, police said they would look into it.

The foreign investigator hired by Ministry of Internal Affairs, exonerated police. Yet it was followed by a warning from State Minister for Internal Affairs, James Baba, on a new approach in the wings – to address what he said was irresponsible reporting on the incident.

“We, in government should soon come to a point when we will have to consider how the media is regulated in this country,” he said in a statement.

What investigation?

The Professional Standards Unit, or department tasked with investigating its own, is being tested with its ongoing investigation into the alleged beating of Edward Echwalu, a freelance photojournalist with both Reuters and The Observer.

According to a statement from the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Uganda (FCAU), of which he is a member, the PSU still has not delivered on promises to keep Echwalu informed of his investigation – one month after an official complaint was lodged.

“In his recorded statement Echwalu alleges having been beaten by four police officers using batons and a rifle butt outside Kira Road police station in Kampala on March 21, as he tried to cover the detention of opposition activists,” the FCAU statement reads, going on to express “grave concern and disappointment with the way in which the Ugandan police’s Professional Standards Unit has handled the investigation.”

The African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), a local NGO that advocates for and trains journalists will soon even mediate talks between the press and police.

According to Bernard Tabaire, the director of programmes at ACME, regulating the media is not entirely uncalled for – but the motives behind it are questionable, and come from the top.

“The president is known to continuously denounce the media, creating a bad example where he cites the media as the enemy,” he says. “What you see is as a result of people striving to do as the main man does.”

When Perez Rumanzi, another reporter with the Daily Monitor, was recently arrested by the Special Forces Group (SFG) guarding the first Lady Janet Museveni, he was told he could not be release without State House approval.

“Do we have an independent police system or it is on orders that it works?” Rumanzi asked in an interview last week, not long after his release. “Why did I spend all that time in cells with no charges?”

A legal maze

Rumanzi is still at risk of being charged with sedition – a penal code provision that rights groups have argued against freedom of expression rights enshrined in the constitution.

According to the HRNJU report, a wealth of legislation surrounding the media has been an unorganised mix of attempts to narrow the space for press freedom.

The public order management act (the controversial bill which would allow police largely blanket powers over crowds of people) just last week moved another step closer to being passed in Parliament, despite having already been deemed unconstitutional by a Ugandan constitutional court. Meanwhile, the still pending communications act, the secrecy act and more work to control and not regulate the media is in offing, HRNJU says.

More than a PR job

Government has also hired an Irish PR firm to polish its tarnished international image on such issues as these.

But without a comprehensive look at contradictory laws and a real dialogue encouraged, police seem to merely be treating their image and not the root causes of the problem.

“They (police) seem to think the journalists are interfering with their work when they are controlling crowds,” Tabaire says, observing that there seems to be little respect for the role of the journalist within the force.

But he goes on to say that journalists are not blameless either, the norms of poor professional and ethical standards have allowed police to point the finger in return.

What’s more, an ineffective Media Council and Journalists Union have struggled to keep tabs on their own. But there are rumblings they too will soon see a major overhaul from within.

Working to work alongside police – in the field and in regulation – seems to be the way out. But first the wall of fingers being pointed must come down.

Freedoms diminish

Attacks on journalists has escalated in the past six months, with 32 cases of attacks since the review by the UN Human Rights Council

Despite the government’s voluntary commitment to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators, there has been no particular action taken resulting into an increment in the attacks. print journalists were most targeted with 13 attacks, followed by 11 in radio and eight on TV.

The Freedom of Expression and Information (FOE-I) Country Status Report in relation to the Universal Peer Review Mechanism (UPRM) released by Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda on April 18, 2012 in Kampala shows more than half of the attacks were committed by the police. The attacks ranged from shooting, physical attack, unlawful arrest and detention/ incarceration of journalists, denying access to news scenes, confiscation of equipment, defective and tramped up charges, to verbal threats.

The report represents a worrying trend of events against the media in Uganda where the year 2011 witnessed a total of 107 cases of attacks on journalists compared to 58 in 2010 and 38 in 2009. This is contrary to the over six (6) recommendations on media freedoms that the government accepted to uphold and protect.

Media freedoms have greatly and continuously been hindered by laws and policies that are maintained on the different statute books. Though media freedom is guaranteed under the Uganda constitution. Article 29(1) that provides that every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression which shall include freedom of the press and other media.
 
Several laws have been made to enforce this article including the Press and Journalist Act; the Electronic Media Act, the Uganda Communications Commissions Act, among others. However, the same laws have provisions that aim at taking away the very rights they are meant to promote, through claw back clauses and/ or clauses that give them excessive powers that have resulted in abuse of media freedoms.

Both penal laws and administrative (or laws meant to control media) are still in operation. These have hindered media freedoms. Several journalists have been charged and continue to answer charges under these laws, while other media houses remain in self-censorship for fear of being closed down using the same laws.

Constitution law collision

Under article 29 of the Uganda’s constitution where every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression. This means the freedom of the press. It is the laws made to enforce this clause that end hindering the very cause they champion. Media freedoms have greatly and continuously been hindered by laws and policies that are maintained on the different statute books” the report says. Here are a few of the laws detailed.

The Penal Code Act

Sections of it atleast.Like 179 which classifies as criminal offence. Libel taken as saying something against the government is classified as out-dated and limiting press freedoms in most countries but in Uganda is still a punishable offecnce.Several journalists have been charged with the same for writing what is perceived to be against government.

Other sections like 39 and 40 which defined law on sedition were since nullified in 2010 after being found to contravene the constitutional right to freedom of expression. Still several members of the press have continued being charged under the same nullified law

The electronic media act capt 104 of 1996

According to a petition to his Excellency the president calling for the respect of deteriorating press freedom, the act allows the broadcasting council to enjoy unprecedented powers of regulating media content. It goes ahead to detail how the institution has overstepped its powers by closing down media houses, banning public debates and ordering the sacking of critical journalists.

The public order management 2009

Awaiting presidential assent, the bill grants the IGP and minister of internal affairs powers over the management of public meetings which can include press briefing. According to the report, it also ‘places extensive and impractical obligations on the organizers of public meetings which are impossible to satisfy and seeks not only to regulate the conduct of public meetings but extends to regulate the content of the discussion of issues at such meetings.

2010 Communications Act

With this the law permits the minister of security to tap into all forms of communication in the country

The secrecy act 1958

This bars public officials from releasing classified information of government .According to the report this contradicts the 2005 access to information act which provides for free and easy access of information from public bodies.

* By Christine Wanjala – May 7  2012 — Source:  Daily Monitor

[Image caption: Daily Monitor’s editors Daniel Kalinaki and Henry Ochieng addressing the media from behind bars]

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