7 May 2013

Uganda: Media Is Biggest Threat to Its Freedom


Last Friday (May 3) was the World Press Freedom day and, as usual, local media associations organised several workshops and seminars to commemorate it.

The harassment of journalists by security personnel - especially the police who routinely beat up scribes covering demonstrations, destroying their equipment - and the poor pay to journalists stood out as key threats to media freedom in Uganda at many of the seminars.

Seminars that are funded by international NGOs tend to be academic, theoretical and superficial, to say the least. They don't touch real issues affecting media freedoms.

At the risk of spoiling the party, I want to suggest two other factors which, in my opinion, present an even immediate bigger threat to media freedoms in the country. I strongly believe journalists in Uganda are increasingly becoming their own enemy.

We have ceded to the state the freedom and territory our mentors so jealously fought for and guarded. Around 1997/98, I participated in my first ever demonstration against police harassment and intimidation of the media.

The demonstration was organized primarily because police had summoned two Daily Monitor reporters James Tumusiime and Siraje Lubwama for reporting that Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi had sneaked into the country. John Nagenda, the senior presidential advisor on the Media, accused Daily Monitor of sponsoring this demo and, as he usually does, hit at Charles Onyango -Obbo, the then editor of the paper.

You can imagine in 1997/98, journalists many of them still uneducated, were able to fight/ demonstrate against mere police summons. Today, fifteen years later, when prison and many times police personnel break their limbs, they quickly meet their bosses and end up wining and dining with them.

Beating up journalists and breaking their cameras was a no -go area for armed personnel and whenever it happened, it was such an ugly thing that attracted local and international condemnation.

Today, police has literally walked over the media using all sorts of methods including inducements. And the new police leadership has become even smarter by compromising some newsrooms especially television stations. Kampala Metropolitan Police Commander Felix Kaweesi and several other commanders these days even determine which footage to broadcast especially after a demonstration. That is how low we have sunk as a group and we are bloody stinking.

What the media must do is to draw the red line regarding its relationship with the police. Newsrooms must also be supervised with a view of eliminating or reforming the compromised lot (journalists). Unfortunately, some of the supervisors (editors) are either compromised themselves or are known state agents or political party activists. In fact some of these supervisors fabricate stories and instruct their juniors to seek comments from victims as a way of balancing copy.

The examples are well- known to you and could be your next -door neighbours. And that brings me to the last threat against media freedoms, which is ownership. I think the country and journalists in particular must start serious discussions on who owns the media in Uganda and the movement towards an oligopoly situation. There are two immediate problems that the nature of media ownership presents to media freedoms in Uganda.

The biggest problem is the increasing state ownership and domination of the media. The country must ask itself how much audience does Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) and Vision group control. The Open Society Foundation, a global organisation which works to build vibrant and tolerant societies, in an article available on internet, discussed in detail the problem of monopolising media, citing Italy as an example. In Italy, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's family, through their Mediaset empire, owns the leading national TV channels.

And when Berlusconi was PM, he exercised tight grip on that country's public national broadcaster Radiotelevisione Italiana. In Italy at one time Berlusconi controlled about 90% of the national audience. This situation is upon us already. I don't begrudge Vision group and UBC but who determines content at these corporations. Media has a big influence on democracy and accountability.

The information and ideas broadcast on these platforms must concern every Ugandan. Democracy is not just casting ballot but also about disseminating information and ideas that shape people's opinion. And finally all of you know that if you are not NRM, it is impossible to be licensed to run a TV and radio station. The big man has slowly transformed himself into a Berlusconi controlling public media and influencing private ones.

I hope you know that CBS is still operating without a licence and that is why a mere phone call resulted into the suspension of MPs Betty Nambooze Bakireke (Mukono municipality) and Muhammad Nsereko (Kampala central). All of us live with this threat. We used to have a journalists' panel discussion on WBS TV but it abruptly ended after the arrest of Kalundi Sserumaga, one of the panelists viewed as a critic of the regime.

These are serious issues that need to be debated; otherwise, the media is slowly becoming as Andrew Mwenda, a veteran journalist, once observed, a platform for profit and, I add, for perpetuating Museveni's presidency project.

The author is Kyadondo East MP.

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