25 June 2012

Uganda: Journalists Want Inquiry Into Media Freedom

Media practitioners have asked the national human rights body to conduct an inquiry into the state of media freedom in the country with a view of kick-starting a reform process in statutory regulation and enhancing professionalism.

Representatives of the media fraternity who convened in Kampala observed that such an inquest that would include an audit of the media legal framework and a public hearing would form basis for reclamation of diminished freedoms, a recession in ethics and expunge of repressive laws.

The media asked the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) to lead the defense of press freedoms, include them in its civic education kit and analyse whether media laws are in line with human rights provisions locally and internationally. Ruth Ssekindi, the director of complaints investigations and legal services represented UHRC chairman, Medi Kaggwa.

The dialogue convened by UHRC at Hotel Africana on Friday evaluated future of media freedoms, impact of statutory regulation on the media landscape, independence of the media, professionalism and key challenges journalists encounter in the course of their duty.

Weakness of media organisations, repressive laws hovering over heads of journalists, state intrusion of newsrooms, ownership of media houses by businessmen only keen on profits and high turn over of practitioners were listed as key dangers to the industry.

Makerere University law professor, Fredrick Jjuuko pointed out that the survival of the media as a profession is in members rallying together to wade off the state. "The Uganda Journalists Association (UJA) needs to be strong like it was at the time of (former President, James) Namakajo. It (UJA) is a shadow of its former self," Jjuuko stated.

"The UHRC has exposed many of these laws that are unconstitutional but so what? Its only organized media that can fight them," Jjuuko who presented a paper on "The State of Freedom of Expression in Uganda", added.

He proposed to the Ugandan media to copy a leaf from Ghana where on top of the Bill of Rights a Constitutional media commission was established.

The New Vision Editor in Chief, Barbara Kaija, observed that there are many "young, inexperienced and ill-trained journalists, often leading to abuse of professional and ethical standards." She said that is compounded by underpayment which leads many journalists into temptation.

Like Jjuuko noted, Kaija also pointed out that media lacks a single professional body to initiate self regulation so that oversight is not surrendered to Government. She recommended a gradual overhaul of media regulation by substituting the current statutory media council with an independent one composed of commissioners from various sectors and headed by a retired judge.

She said the independent council would probe into what regulatory system is suitable for Uganda and is in conformity with the constitution. The council would set penalties for erring media houses or journalists including demand for apologies or fines. "Those unhappy with the independent media council decision would then seek court redress," Kaija who presented a paper on: "Effectiveness of the regulatory bodies and their impact on the media landscape", remarked.

Several speakers were on the view that journalists need to put professionalism first not to attract stringent government regulation which criminalises omissions and commissions.

City lawyer, Nicholas Opio pointed out that in the various cases brought against the media courts have been lenient because the understand well the UN declaration of human rights and Constitutional provisions (Article 29 and 49) which prescribe freedom of expression and right to access to information.

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