By Warom Felix
Arua. A free press is essential to any democratic society in the World. It seeks out and circulates news, information, ideas, comment and opinion and holds those in authority to account.
And so the press provides the platform for a multiplicity of voices to be heard especially those who are oppressed, the poor, and those who cannot stand up for their rights and freedoms.
The media fraternity is now under threat by the state wielding its power on the unarmed journalists and media houses across the country. Now a group of 230 journalists under Uganda Press Freedom Network across the country have today signed a petition against the plans to gag the media by the state.
This goes a long way to achieve the press freedom campaign that the journalists have been engaged in for years despite the liberalization of the media. Last week, saw the black days of Journalists especially those who covered Parliament and the countrywide protests against lifting of the Presidential Age Limit.
Several media houses came under attack by the state especially using the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) that banned Live Coverage. This left many Ugandans, who are consumers of the Television stations in black out only to wait for the subsequent news bulletins.
Journalists during an interview at Uganda-South Sudan border. Photos by Warom Felix
On Monday, Ugandan journalists then signed a petition with resilience in the wordings of not relenting. “No way we shall relent to the pressure! a free press is the cornerstone of a prosperous democracy, which Uganda aspires to and the ruling NRM government has always touted among its signature achievements in its three decades in power to date..” the petition stated.
On September 26, UCC ordered broadcasters, especially television stations, “to immediately stop and refrain from broadcasting live feeds” of ongoing debates in Parliament over the age limits that wound up in fistfights. The Commission claimed such broadcasts were in contravention of Section 31 of the Uganda Communications Act, 2013.
Some Ugandan journalists have had unfriendly scenarios at the hands of police that brutalized them especially while covering various protests especially in the Capital city. The media has also seen raids on offices of The Monitor Publications Limited, Red pepper and the Observer Newspapers.
Status of media
The HRNJ-U press freedom index of 2016 shows a slight reduction in the media freedom violations compared to the 2015 index where 140 cases were reported. The Press Freedom Index details how Uganda Police, other state actors and powerful individuals manipulate the law to curtail media freedoms.
The report titled “Tough Times, Political Intolerance Stifles Media”, shows that Police committed 83 of the 135 media violations recorded in 2016.
The uncalled for iron hand of UCC puts to test the media freedom that everyone strives to have in a country where democracy is at its infancy. Free media expedites democratic principles especially to a despotic regime.
Over the last several weeks, as agitation over the presidential age limits has seized public debate, Ugandan journalists and media houses have been unfortunate victims of overzealous security personnel keen to stifle particularly the voices of Ugandan citizens opposed to the removal of the age limits.
The events across the country saw journalists arrested and spent a night at police cells in Northern Uganda district of Lira. Others had their equipment confiscated and only returned to them in the evening. Others were caught up in scuffles with security operatives who wanted to confiscate their equipment, particularly cameras.
In Moyo in West Nile Sub-region, police blocked a talk show paid up by Aulogo Youth Initiative on Trans Nile Broad casting Services (TBS). The Station Manager, Patrick Akuti, said: “Indeed we were stopped by the police after we first aired the story on age limit protests. We found the police surrounding our building at night and later the DPC told me to abide by not having any talk show on the station especially youths discussing the Age Limit.”
The DPC Mr Steven Agaba, the Moyo district police commander, who appeared to be defending his action that compromises media freedom, said: “My office has not received any communications regarding the debate on air and peaceful demonstration on age limit. Whenever, there is going to be demonstration or debates by public order management Act, We are supposed to be notified in time by the organizers and my office has not received such information.”
On Friday, a group of supporters of Arua Municipality MP, Ibrahim Abiriga, stormed state funded Arua One Fm, demanding the News Editor to retract the news segment aired about the MP found urinating in public.
In a media interview, Abiriga said radio stations that will continue airing out his story of urination, will be attacked. These disgraceful unfolding events against the media should not be taken lightly.
The Chairman of West Nile Press Association (WENPA), Mr Aluma Clement, said: “We cannot allow Abiriga mess around everything (especially with media). He is inciting violence.”
Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda has been in an effortless talks and fighting for media freedom in the country. HRNJ-U and African Center for Media Excellence (ACME) have for the past years been in solidarity with journalists arrested and has offered legal services to free journalists and ensure justice is done to them.
The current threats water down efforts of the network, the statements issued by the Ambassadors during the World Press Freedom Day in May this year.
Gertrude Tumusiime, a reporter with NTV was kidnapped by suspected security operatives. Stanley Ndawula, the founder of The Investigator, an online publication petitioned President Yoweri Museveni accusing the Inspector General of Police, Gen Edward Kale Kayihura of threatening his life for writing stories on the ongoing investigations into the killing of Andrew Felix Kaweesi.
More importantly, it demonstrates an erroneous pattern UCC has absorbed itself in. It is the accuser, prosecutor, judge and executioner of media work the Commission and its appointing authority disapprove of not because it contravenes any law but has been adjudged as unpalatable to those who wield state power.
The statement of the Journalists says UCC, more than anybody else, should be at the forefront of protecting and promoting the rights of journalists and media houses in Uganda to operate freely. This, they said is important if for nothing else to fulfill its promise of providing communication for all, which inevitably includes the views they might disagree with for political or other reasons.
Uganda government needs to heed to the calls of UNESCO that says a free, pluralistic and independent news media, on all platforms, is important for facilitating good governance and transparency. Within the much-broadened media landscape, news media still remain central conduits for ongoing public assessments of the activities of government and other institutions that have developmental impact.