Opinion
Is Press Freedom Absolute?
Publish Date: May 02, 2014
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By Josepha Jabo

May 3, is World Press Freedom Day. Ugandan journalists acknowledge press freedom exists in this country, for people have the liberty to talk freely and express their opinions on the various media platforms.

In addition, the viewing and listening publics are permitted to call-in and contribute their views during these programmes.
 

However, the media explosion (evidenced by the numerous operational media houses) has created stiff competition between media practitioners who fight for the few available adverts.

This had caused the biggest advertisers to ‘control’ the industry since negative publicity will make them ‘pull out’ their advertising; and, obviously, the media house knows it will be foolhardy to bite the hand that feeds it! Since, in Uganda, most media houses are privately-owned, therefore, their agenda is more business-driven and the private-sector, which owns these media houses have become cautious when it comes to self-censorship.
 

Journalists complain about the low pay but this can be mitigated through an independent self-regulatory body which can establish a minimum wage. Ugandan journalists earn relatively less than their regional counterparts.
 

What is more, in recent years, a syndicate of masqueraders has emerged in the media fraternity. These pseudo-journalists are unemployed individuals who never write or publish news stories but rather obtain fake identity cards, which they use to pose as media house representatives attending hotel workshops with the sole purpose of obtaining the money that comes at the end of it! They are also notorious for stealing laptops.

These quacks have saturated the already overcrowded industry and lowered the credibility of bona fide journalists. The media fraternity urgently needs to ‘police’ itself to weed out these fraudsters.

Fortunately, at Uganda Media Centre, background checks are carried out to verify whether or not a journalist is legitimate before being accredited to cover an international conference.
 

One of the major grievances journalists complain about is the difficulty they face in accessing information, especially crucial statistics, from government ministries, which forces them to rely on NGOs who are more forthcoming with their research findings.

This is in spite of ‘The Access to Information Act, 2005,’which journalists allege, “No one pays attention to.” Sad to say, this law has become a paper tiger. For example, a government official will either tell a journalist, “I am not supposed to give out that information because I am not authorised to do so” or will tell the journalist to first write a request letter to the ministry.
 

Indeed, section 11. clause (1) in this Act states, ‘A request for access to a record or information shall be in writing in the prescribed form to the information officer of the public body in control of the record or information required and shall provide sufficient control of the record or information required and shall provide sufficient details to enable an experienced employee of the public body to identify the record or information.’

So, when a journalist is asked to make a formal written request, to obtain information, this is in accordance with the law.
 

However, responses to such letters (if they come at all) usually take a month, after which the story is ‘dead.’ This leaves journalists frustrated as they struggle to scale the walls of government bureaucracy (paperwork) while at the same time needing a quick response because of deadlines.

To resolve this, bureaucracy should reduce and officials should respond in a timely manner for this law to be effective and useful to journalists.
 

Actually, the difficulty in accessing information has forced some journalists to resort to anonymous sources (who refuse to be quoted) and thus write-up stories which cannot be verified and which responsible editors refuse to ‘run.’
 

Notwithstanding these occupational hazards; journalists must retain their integrity and impartiality (especially those who claim to be independent) by ensuring they write balanced, fact-filled, and thoroughly researched stories which are not skewed in favour of their vested interests or personal biases.

Journalists must educate themselves to be well-informed of their legal limits, in the various media laws, so national interest (an editor’s concern) and national security (government’s concern) do not conflict.

Also an over-reliance on sensationalist pieces (since bad stories sell more than good) has driven the Ugandan media and this must be toned down. Journalists must not take press freedom too far, by overstepping their mandate.

They must learn to respect public office holders and desist from occasionally targeting public figures with abuse and embarrassing questions.
 

They should strive for excellence to be able to set the standard for literary excellence.
 

The Writer works for Uganda Media Centre

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