30 January 2013

Uganda: House Bans Observer Journalists

In an unprecedented move, the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, has suspended two of The Observer's journalists from covering parliamentary proceedings.

The journalists, David Tash Lumu and Sulaiman Kakaire, were singled out for writing two stories, How Kadaga, Oulanyah fought over petition and House recall petitioners strike deal with Kadaga.

The Speaker had personally complained about the first story, which she said was false, and demanded its retraction. When the ban came in a January 28, 2013 letter addressed to The Observer, Helen Kaweesa, Parliament's Public Relations Officer had added another article and another reporter.

In her letter, signed for the Clerk to Parliament, Kaweesa complained that the two articles were "full of inaccuracies" and "damaging to the office of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker." She said the motives of the two articles are "questionable and unfortunate", thus justifying the suspension. She also said that the reporters had not cross-checked their stories with the Speaker or the Public Relations office.

"It is against this background, therefore, that a decision has been made to immediately suspend the two reporters namely; Mr David Tash Lumu and Mr Sulaiman Kakaire, since it's evident that the two are not in position to observe professionalism, while reporting here at Parliament."

The Observer is however free to nominate other reporters for the Parliament beat, Kaweesa said. The stories largely dwelt on the parliamentary recall petition politics and how Kadaga was trying to manage the situation.

Ladislas Rwakafuuzi, an activist and a lawyer, described the move to bar the two reporters from covering Parliament as "unconstitutional". He vowed to help challenge what he described as a "kangaroo court ban" in court.

"She has exceeded her powers as the chief executive of Parliament. Her major role is to take care of the welfare of MPs. Banning journalists from Parliament is not her jurisdiction. This matter should be challenged in court. She acted outside her powers," Rwakafuuzi said.

The Uganda Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA), where Lumu and Kakaire are members, has written to Helen Kaweesa, through its Secretary General, Moses Kajangu, questioning the decision.

The Observer has issued a statement on the matter (below).

The Observer statement on Parliament coverage

In our issue of Monday January 21, 2013, we carried a lead story titled, 'How Kadaga, Oulanyah fought over petition". Among other things, our story, based on accounts of our sources within Parliament, said that Speaker Rebecca Kadaga had attended a meeting, in which the petition to recall Parliament was discussed.

That meeting was reported to have resolved that the decision to reject the petition should be taken by Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah, rather than by the Speaker herself. The Speaker has specifically said she has never attended any such meeting as we reported. The Speaker has also spoken of the great amount of stress that the above story has caused her, and the undue tension it has caused within the parliamentary community.

In another article, 'Petitioners strike deal with Kadaga', on January 23, we reported about an understanding between the Speaker and MPs on the nature of what was understood to be a Constitutional Court petition in relation to the Speaker's rejection of the MPs' petition.

Parliament has also objected to the publication of this story. The office of the clerk to Parliament has subsequently written to the editor, withdrawing accreditation for two of our reporters, who were involved in the above stories. Having carefully considered the objections of the Speaker's office, The Observer responds as follows:

While our sources have stood by the thrust of the information, we recognise that ultimately it would come down to the Speaker's word against ours. We do not think it would be desirable or helpful to stretch the argument that far.

If the said stories in any way caused the Speaker stress and strain, especially in as far as we, regrettably, did not seek her side of the story, we apologise. We, however, object strongly to the move by Parliament to suspend our journalists, and we invite the clerk's office to reconsider this drastic step. In so doing, Parliament has acted as complainant, prosecutor and judge, all wrapped in one.

Many of the issues affecting our country's politics are first discussed in informal settings, with no minutes or press conferences until, usually, some nosy journalist, aided by sources, publishes the details. In the difficult process of searching for the truth, we might get some details wrong.

When that happens, we feel worse than anyone else, and we apologise. Moreover, we strictly observe the aggrieved parties' right of reply. But Parliament, while within its right to demand better coverage, should not be seen to gag the messengers.

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