Infringing upon freedom of the media
Publish Date: Feb 19, 2014
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By Sheilla Atim

A recent directive from the Uganda Communications Commission warns broadcasters to “take extra care to be impartial and factual in their reporting” on South Sudan.  

In its letter, the UCC “cautions all media houses to adhere to the provisions of the… Minimum Broadcasting Standards,” which require that any program broadcast must “1) not be contrary to public morality; 2) does not promote the culture of violence or ethnical prejudice among the public especially children and the youth; 3) in the cases of news broadcast, is free from distorted facts; 4) is not likely to create public insecurity or violence; 5) is in compliance with the existing law” and “where a broadcast relates to national security, the contents of the broadcast are verified before broadcasting.”  The UCC ends its letter by saying that any broadcaster who fails to follow these standards “will be disciplined in accordance with the law.”

While the importance of preventing public insecurity, the culture of violence, and ethnic prejudice, among other goals, cannot be overstated, the UCC’s letter underscores fundamental concerns about the legal framework regulating the media in Uganda, and the way in which this legal framework is implemented.

One area of particular concern for the freedom of the media is the Minimum Broadcasting Standards, contained in the 4th Schedule of the Uganda Communications Act 2013.  Article 19’s analysis argued that the Standards do not meet international best practices in regulating the media because “the content rules found in the Schedule are extremely broad and vague and therefore wide open to abuse—not to mention the chilling effect they may have on broadcasters even before they are enforced.”

By including broad, vague language like “public morality” and “distorted facts” that allows considerable room for interpretation, the Minimum Broadcasting Standards provide huge opportunities for politically motivated interference in broadcasting.  Even the more detailed language that a broadcast “is not likely to create public insecurity or violence” may be subject to abuse, given the plethora of cases recently filed against journalists for incitement to violence, in instances where no clear incitement to violence was made.

To prevent infringement on the freedom of the media, the Minimum Broadcasting Standards should be amended to reflect the basic principles of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in a democratic society.  Where content is to be regulated by a Government body, clear and detailed standards should be established to prevent overly broad interpretation by regulators and political interference in broadcasting.  

To the greatest extent possible, as stated in the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, “effective self-regulation is the best system for promoting high standards in the media.”  Taking into account these principles will promote a broadcasting content that serves the public interest and protects the freedom of the media.

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