By Dr George Lugalambi
Cabinet is currently reviewing the proposed amendments to the Press and Journalist Act 2001, which is the law that governs media practice. Like all citizens and well-meaning people in Government, every Ugandan journalist wants to work in a media industry that is responsible, respected and alert to the publicâ€™s right to know.
In fact, every journalist shares the Government and citizensâ€™ concerns about the professionalism of the media. Sometimes the media report news and information that are either poorly researched or not based on verifiable facts.
Yet, these weaknesses cannot be solved by punitive laws. Organised and credible self-regulation, ongoing training, experience, constant professional soul-searching, and time for the industry to mature will contribute far more to addressing these problems than harsh laws.
Most practitioners recognise that sensationalism as well as biased and insensitive reporting do undermine the very fabric of their trade. That said, every single day the overwhelming proportion of news and information reported in the media mirror what exactly is happening in our society. A society that has no free and credible avenues for examining itself can neither correct its failures nor benefit from the best thinking available in the marketplace of ideas.
That is why we believe that if passed into law, the proposed Press and Journalist (Amendment) Bill 2010 will further erode press freedom and free expression in Uganda. Our media are already burdened with repressive laws like those that make it a crime to publish unfavourable information about government activities and public officials.
One problem with the amendments is that the Government takes a very narrow view of the print media as a political player. But newspapers and news magazines are businesses like any other. By providing employment, they sustain families. By paying taxes, they contribute to economic growth. By highlighting the performance trends in national exams, they help parents and guardians think about how best to get value for the money they invest in educating their children. Currently, newspapers and magazines are required by law to register at the General Post Office. There is no reason to change that.
The proposed laws are excessive, authoritarian, and contradict the vision of the framers of Ugandaâ€™s 1995 Constitution as well as other international instruments and protocols that Uganda has signed. Given our history, the NRM Government was widely praised for giving the media a new lease on life.
Uganda has more newspapers and radio and TV stations than ever before. The media have consistently exposed corruption, human rights abuses and political impunity. President Yoweri Museveniâ€™s government gained international respectability because of the manner in which it fought some of the evils exposed by the media. The proposed changes to the law will reverse these gains.
Requiring newspapers to be licensed annually appears like a routine practice. After all, all businesses get a trading license to operate and newspapers are no exception. But a special annual license will only add to their cost of doing business. Besides, what bothers us most is the spirit behind this amendment. It is clear the Government wants to gain the power to deny, revoke or refuse to renew newspaper licenses at will and without prior recourse to the courts of law.
The powers and methods of the Broadcasting Council, which has no public accountability mechanisms, have stifled the otherwise vibrant culture of openly discussing public affairs on radio. The bimeeza were seen by other African countries as democratic innovations in the broadcaster sector.
In fact, President Museveniâ€™s idea of barazas as platforms for communities to hold public officials accountable, was a byproduct of the bimeeza. It is, therefore, ironical that as calls for regulating the Broadcasting Council increase, the Government is proposing to introduce a similar model for the print sector.
Some of the proposed licensing conditions, such as â€œproof of existence of adequate technical facilitiesâ€ and the â€œsocial, cultural and economic values of the newspaper,â€ violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and are subject to abuse.
Any person or legal entity should be free to publish a newspaper whether they have state-of-the-art technology or not. The newspapers that stood up to the oppressors of the past, including the colonialists, and highlighted human rights abuses were produced with rudimentary technology, but the ideas they propagated changed the history of this country for the better. Freedom of the press should not be the preserve of the rich.
The proposed law gives the Media Council powers to revoke a newspaperâ€™s license if it publishes material that is â€œprejudicial to national security, stability and unity,â€ â€œinjurious to Ugandaâ€™s relations with her neighbours or friendly countries,â€ or â€œamounts to economic sabotage.â€ Newspapers legitimately exist to comment responsibly on matters of national security, foreign relations, and the economy. The instances when they perform this role positively far outnumber those when they fail.
Criminalising these activities in terms that are unclear and imprecise opens up the media to the partisan and subjective actions of people in power. For instance, we have been asking ourselves: Who defines and what constitutes prejudice to national security or injury to Ugandaâ€™s relations with her neighbours or friendly countries? Wonâ€™t any politician or government functionary with interests in a particular business decide that certain reporting and commentary about the activities of that business amount to economic sabotage?
The proposed amendments will serve more to hamper than to enhance media freedom and professionalism. We call upon the Government to support self-regulatory initiatives.
The article was written in collaboration with Article 29 Coalition, which takes its name from Ugandaâ€™s 1995 Constitution provision on freedom of the media and expression. The coalition is a voluntary network of organisations working to promote media freedom and professionalism in journalism. Dr. George Lugalambi, the head of the Mass Communication Department at Makerere University, is the coalitionâ€™s chairperson