By Halima Athumani
Ugandan journalists are often arrested and harrassed by government officials for attempting to carry out their work
There are some 137 media houses and news outlets in Uganda, which for an outsider might indicate freedom of media, information and speech.
However, Ugandan journalists will tell you otherwise in light of recent events which have witnessed the government cracking its whip on political talk shows and individual journalists.
It all started in mid-December 2012 after the mysterious death of a youthful female member of Parliament, Cerinah Nebanda from the ruling National Resistance Movement party.
The government was quick to rubbish unconfirmed reports published by media houses containing allegations that Nebanda had been poisoned, stating that she had died from a drug overdose.
Late December 2012, President Yoweri Museveni called a press conference in his home town of Rwakitura, in the west of the country. The President noted that he had launched three major projects including the first ferry service in 52 years, a fish hatchery and electricity services in the northern part of Uganda.
The President complained that the nation media group affiliated newspaper Daily Monitor had not published any story about the developments, “not one.” “So, what are you here for? If you don’t want to report what I do, go elsewhere. Why should we license you?” he asked, adding “don’t think it is over; you either report or you will see!”
On Facebook, Wafula Oguttu one of the co-founders of the Daily Monitor responded that, like any other media outlet, the newspaper will only cover those stories which they think are of great benefit or interest to their target audience.
“That man has many media outlets under his control which always publish anything from him, even naked lies. Why is he interested in DM covering him?”
Government cracks the whip
On January 7th, the government’s communications commission suspended five popular talk shows on different radio stations around the country.
Hits FM a local radio station based in the western part of the country received a directive from the Uganda communications commission to stop airing two programmes, until they could investigate the content of the talk shows.
The letter to the manager Magezi Willy claimed that talk show guests had incited violence against government officials. They were thus ordered to adjust the content of the talk shows and broadcast government development projects instead of political issues.
However, when our reporter contacted the proprietor of the station, also a member of the ruling party Nulu Byamukama, he dismissed the development and said the decision to suspend the talk shows was a board decision.
Another radio station which has felt the government’s strong-handedness is the Central Broadcasting Station. In 2009, CBS was among four radio stations that were shut down by the Broadcasting Council during the stand-off between the Central government and the Buganda kingdom, the largest traditional Kingdom in Uganda.
The station was reopened several months later amidst reports that management had agreed to tone down their critical political programming.
In January 2013, government officials yet again demanded that the station suspend two of its popular talk show panellists. The two politicians are panellists on the talk show “Take it or leave it” which hosts various members of Parliament, and they had been debating the controversy surrounding the death of the NRM female MP.
However, when contacted, both Hits FM and CBS insist the move to suspend the critical political talk shows and panellists was taken after an internal review. CBS in particular noted that considering that the station has been closed before, it was better to cease hosting the politicians until further notice.
Human Rights network for journalist dismayed
National coordinator for the Uganda Human Rights Network for Journalists, Wokulira Ssebagala argues that the government is intent on holding freedom of expression hostage.
He argued that the government is criminalising free expression under the guise of enforcing the law against incitement of violence and control of political and media indiscipline. This has been manifest in its steady, orchestrated and systematic clampdown of critical voices with divergent views by state agencies.
On December 7th, the national police in Kampala City arrested the country director for Action Aid, Arthur Larok and independent activist, Leonard Okello for distributing anti-graft newsletters that had catalogued cases of corruption since 2000.
The Journalists Human rights network concludes with concern that the government has failed to utilise the available platforms to articulate its policies and programmes.
“This inability is being used as reason to criminalise free speech, threatening to withdraw media licenses and accusing media of sabotaging government programmes,” added Wokulira.
Curtailing the media or denial of free speech?
Minister in charge of the presidency, Frank Tumwebaze has argued that the government was out to monitor and restore sanity within the media.
“Why do we have partisan media, prejudice form the basis of reporters’ stories without probing, balance and investigations? Stories are manufactured in the newsrooms which is unprofessional,” he lamented.
Sulaiman Kakaire and David Tash Lumu, journalists covering parliament for Observer Media Limited ended the month of January with a suspension letter from the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga.
The journalists allegedly wrote stories which the speaker considered inaccurate and annoying. The two stories, “How Kadaga, Oulanyah fought over petition” and “House Recall Petitioners strike deal with Kadaga” were published in January 21st and 23rd editions of The Observer.
A January 28th letter from the Office of the Clerk stated that “the reporters in filing inaccurate articles which they did not bother to cross check with either the Office of the Speaker or the Public Relations Office went against the Guidelines of Covering Parliament, of which they are well aware. The motives of the two articles are questionable, and unfortunate.”
Lumu insists that the speaker is trying to fight free speech, and attack media freedom arguing that it is a clear indictment not only of the journalists’ profession, but of their rights as well.
Way forward for the media
Analysts believe media freedom has never been fully anchored in our democratic culture like personal freedoms and freedom of association.
If left unchallenged, such actions will force journalists and their media houses to retreat to self-censorship which will be a detriment to transparency, accountability and questioning state actions. Yet such roles are the cardinal principles on which the fourth estate is anchored.
Angelo Izama an Open Society Fellow argues that the media is vulnerable to the mood of politics and the power of the executive branch. This is seen as arrests, mistreatment of journalists and non-state actors happen at the whim of the executive.
“What we have in Uganda is only freedom until it’s taken away and we have very little control on the occasion it’s removed or power to restore it if it is refused,” he notes.
But according to Minister Tumwebaze what the media needs to do is fight infiltration of politicians and weed out political actors who masquerade as reporters. “What happened to development journalism, why is it that stories are negative, negative, and negative, as if Uganda is ending today?”
Halima Athumani is a journalist working with Uganda Radio Network (URN) in Kampala, Uganda.