Since 1986, the Government has striven for a Uganda of open data with free and full access to information.
By Kyetume Kasanga
On October 22, 2019, a new Secretary to the Media Council of Uganda was inaugurated. The secretary is appointed by the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance.
The Council was established by the Press and Journalist Act, Cap 105 of 1995. It regulates the conduct and promotes good ethical standards and discipline of journalists, arbitrates disputes between the public and the media, the media and the media and the State and the media. It exercises disciplinary control over journalists, editors and publishers, among other functions.
Since 1986, the Government has striven for a Uganda of open data with free and full access to information. This was enshrined in the Constitution under Article 41. The provision was operationalised by the Access to Information Act, 2005 and Access to Information Regulations, 2011. It is only prudent that Government and the media bond together, without the one appearing to be against the other’s public interests.
The media has both the capacity and capability to mobilise, teach, sensitise or otherwise manipulate the citizenry through information dissemination. Therefore, they have a big responsibility to society and must always be reminded to execute it well. This reminder is particularly important because democracy has not yet fully metamorphosed amidst freedom of the press and of expression which are guaranteed under Article 29 of the said Constitution.
In his 2nd Edition of Public Service Broadcasting: A Comparative Legal Survey published in 2011, Toby Mendel, the executive director of Canada’s Centre for Law and Democracy, says media legislation in Uganda has tended to emphasise control rather than regulation. This has often resulted in a love-hate-love relationship and sometimes sucks in non-state actors. We are all duty-bound to stem this situation for effective citizen engagement and inclusive development.
Journalists, in particular, have a mission to provide the public with information on general or specialist areas of interest most objectively. To effectively carry out this task and shape public opinion, they should be patriotic through and through. They have to promote national values with ethical strength, moral authority, professional dexterity and sensitive responsibility.
Without these tenets, the media has no locus standi to practise what they do. The Media Council of Uganda will come in to regulate and exercise disciplinary control over them, and generally, promote the flow of information. However, excellence on their job can nip any excuses for Government intervention in the bud.
As it is now, the Media Council is not fully constituted due to disagreements in certain constituencies. We should fix these as soon as we possibly can so that it is fully constituted. It should then root for the media that is respected, upheld and protected. We must espouse a society where journalists, media practitioners and media houses are well defined, their respective stakes in the industry properly calibrated and their role in it cut out.
In this respect, we should start asking afresh the hitherto hard questions that were asked over 20 years ago but no answers were supplied. Globally there is no standard definition of a journalist. The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers attempts a flabby one but allows domestic media laws in any country to provide their own working definition. Who is a journalist in the Ugandan context? Is journalism a profession like any other? Should it or should it not have professional and minimum academic standards? How do you regulate an industry devoid of standards?
Unless we get the right answers to those and related queries, the media in Uganda will always wallow in murky waters. It is our cardinal duty to salvage it. We tried in the late 1990s or thereabouts. However, top honchos in the industry argued then that the profession was sparsely populated and regulating it would simply kill it. I hope the ghosts of that argument will not return.
Where Government has faltered it has given rise to self-regulation. This is a welcome development, though. That is partly why the Independent Media Council of Uganda was formed in 2006 by 42 stakeholder entities, including civil society and registered as an NGO. Time has come for the MCU and the IMCU to find common ground and work together. While our interests and modus operandi might differ, we are serving the same person – the general public.
Our next agenda should involve joint forums on how to help every journalist, media practitioner, media house and Government scale the landscape to effectively serve this public. Needless to say, therefore, our programmes, projects and activities should be guided by mother Uganda’s interests and unique realities.
Within our mandate, we should restart the discussion around our media history and future of journalism in this country, energise reconciliatory arbitration of disputes wherever and whenever they occur, initiate media excellence awards and strengthen the safety, protection and welfare of journalists, as well as their training and media literacy. There is also a need to review the existing legal framework to address emerging challenges such as those posed by the proliferation of private media, the film industry, the advent of new media and citizen journalism.
For these and other programmes to fruit and succeed, a reasonably-sized resource envelope will not be an option but a necessity. Some Media Councils around the world do not command client and even their own, confidence due to inadequate funding leading to poor branding and visibility in the public domain. This should not happen at the Media Council of Uganda. Therefore, there is an urgent need for stakeholders to advocate a sustainable funding strategy for the Council. It is necessary to get reasonable staffing levels and office space in one place to enhance these programmes and projects, support deserving activities and get us going where we are not functional yet.
The writer is the new Secretary of the Media Council of Uganda