21 October 2006

Uganda: Press Freedom in Uganda Might Be in Jeopardy


The New Vision management set an objective and progressive political line, supportive of the Movement ideals, but critical of failings, as the basis of its editorial philosophy," says an advertorial for the newspaper on the Uganda Securities Exchange website.

For 20 years, this editorial approach has been used by journalist-turned media-entrepreneur William Pike to drive the paper.

Last week, however, heralded Mr Pike's departure and the appointment of his former corporation secretary, Robert Kabushenga who until then had been the head of the Uganda Media Centre.

While Mr Kabushenga should be congratulated for being the man chosen to step into Pike's shoes, his appointment is worrying -- and a signal that overall the government is slowly rolling back the very media freedoms that have been a hallmark of its liberalisation policy.

In the past year, the government has closed down radio stations, threatened others, jailed and intimidated journalists. At the behest of Kabushenga himself as director of the Media Centre, Canadian journalist, Blake Lambert was unceremoniously kicked out of the country. Restrictions were also imposed on foreign journalists who remained behind.

Necessary evil

These actions came in the wake of a push for President Yoweri Museveni's third term, which lowered his international standing and weakened his domestic legitimacy.

In response to Mr Museveni being labelled " just another African president clinging to power", the government threw money at the tainted image of the President -- hiring expensive lobbyists in London, doling out one million dollars to the CNN for a PR posturing campaign, and opening the Media Centre, which Kabushenga was dispatched to head.

It appears that all this was still not enough. Rumours of a shake-up at The New Vision, and particularly the replacement of Pike had been around for a while largely because of the perception that the Briton was a political moderate who did not in principle support Museveni's continued stay in power and the political challenges it entailed.

It may have cost Pike his job but it is the wider press corps who will pay even more dearly.

There has begun a steady erosion of media freedoms and an environment is being cultivated where critical opinion may no longer be tolerated.

Critics and the liberal establishment, including donors and NGOs, will likely blame this whole mess on Museveni. Unfortunately, the problem is a lot bigger. Museveni's third term was not just a simple political gamble to extend his rule.

It has virtually tied his hands and made the use of threats and force even more necessary to maintain the system. Apart from polite international isolation (which will continue in spite of the discovery of oil), locally the loss of legitimacy has left Museveni a weak President.

Getting things done will now increasingly depend on coercion because bribery and official corruption will soon become too expensive. While political support (like the lifting of term limits by Members of Parliament) came at Shs5 million a piece, the price will now double or triple. MPs are already brazenly demanding a bigger cut.

The price will be higher to purchase the loyalty of critics in the opposition who have of late, including his former ministers, openly told him off. Soon military top brass, some of whom are corrupt, will ask for more.

The public service already institutionally tolerates corruption because of poor pay among others. But with everyone looting, the decline in provision of public service will continue and disasters like the power crisis will emerge.

Soiled legacy?

Corrupt and inefficient governments have traditionally responded to this dilemma with rhetoric. This makes controlling the media a necessary evil, especially in a liberal environment like Uganda.

So lawsuits against media houses, intimidation of community stations and journalists, will soon be the norm.

Ironically, The Philippines Ferdinand Marcos and Indonesia Gen. Muhammad Suharto were driven out by popular discontent for the failure of their kleptocratic regimes despite muzzling the media.

The rhetoric could not replace genuine reforms. Suharto is still wanted for trial despite his old age and frail health while Marcos died sick and in exile. Both men, brilliant in their youth, have left controversial and discredited legacies.

That trajectory aside, it is more than a little sad that for The New Vision, gone are the days when it could claim an "objective and progressive political line, supportive of the Movement ideals, but critical of failings".

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