3 May 2012

Uganda: World Press Freedom Day Unites the Unlikely

Photo: Helen Kilbey/allAfrica.com
South Africa: A cameraman prepares for work.

On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, Ugandan journalists and human rights activists rally through the streets of Kampala to protest police intimidation and violence towards journalists. Guess who else marches? The police. They also hold a banner reading "Ugandan police supports press freedom".

Siraje Lubwama, a member of the Ugandan Journalists Association, marches to channel his anger. "We, as journalists, are trained to report on what is happening. But when we try to fulfill our profession, the police treat us as enemies," he says. "We face intimidation and some of us are blacklisted. Things have to change."

Yonas Embye is also at the protest. The Eritrean journalist had to flee his country after spending four years in a prison cell for writing about politically sensitive issues. Now exiled in Uganda, he attends the rally on behalf of 32 Eritrean journalists currently being held captive in Eritrea. "There is no independent media house in Eritrea since 2001. No one knows if my fellow countrymen are still alive. The international community needs to open its eyes," he says.

Police presence

Present, too, is none other than police inspector general Kale Kayihura. Speaking to a group of journalists, he says the police respects freedom of expression. And he agrees an unbiased press makes for a healthy society. "Free media is essential for Uganda," he tells us. "Although journalists can help us in exposing the truth, it is important that the media remain fair in their reporting."

Kayihura also mentions the police is unhappy with demonizing and impartial reports by journalists that "distort the reality and paint an unrealistic picture of Uganda". He concludes by saying the police is ready to work with - and respect - the media. In turn, the media must take a responsible attitude when reporting on the country.

New voices

Jointly launched by UNESCO and the UN Department of Public Information, the first World Press Freedom Day was on 3 May 1993. This year's theme is "New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies". According to a statement by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova: "Freedom of expression is one of our most precious rights. It underpins every other freedom and provides a foundation for human dignity".

Uganda falls in freedom ranking

Uganda consistently faces international criticism over its lack of press freedom and the police intimidation local journalists experience when covering opposition rallies. The Press Freedom Index 2011-2012, published in January by Reporters Without Borders, ranks Uganda among the top three countries worldwide with the most dramatic fall in press freedom.

And yet, Kampala's march on Wednesday proved peaceful and there were no reports of injury. Perhaps the police is changing its tactics.

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