The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: There Is Need to Regulate Journalism

The journalism industry has gone through a rough terrain.

The roughness is reflected in the public conduct of some members as they go about their work. But the strangest of all things that have happened to journalism in Uganda, is the aversion to regulation and orderly conduct of business.

In Uganda, like other democratic societies, journalists arrogated themselves the duty of being watchdogs of the public. And a good number has done a good job in that regard.

They have sought the truth and spread it accordingly. They have exposed injustices, corruption and some even paid with their own careers and life to defend justice, and fair play.

In fact the mantra has been to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, many journalists have not only fallen prey to the very 'vice' they are trying to fight on behalf of the public, they have gone out of their way to defeat the very essence of the profession.

We have The Press and Journalist Act; it may not be the best law, (it needs to be amended to bring it in tandem with the current changes in the media industry) but a few media organisations operate within that law. That law is usually invoked by state whenever a particular media goes against the former's wishes.

But if journalists are the watchdogs of the public, who then watches them? Why do some journalists think they should work without regulations (even self-regulation is resisted)?

There are people who think the journalists are untouchable; so, they have a licence to offend other people, blackmail those in compromised situations, extort money in order to kill stories.

And because of these transgressions, the state and some reasonable members of our society have come to paint the journalists with the same colour and paint brush - they don't respect us. How can the watchdog be compromised? Is a compromised watchdog still useful to the master? How then can a compromised watchdog be rehabilitated in the absence of a disciplinary committee with binding authority?

One reason why some journalists have become despicable and, in a way, 'friends with benefits' is because they have nothing to lose. Some people have argued that issuing annual licences to journalists would have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression. The concern was that the state would use this opportunity to gag the most vociferous and critical journalists just like it happens in some dictatorial regimes.

But even without a licence, some people have been barred from hosting radio talk shows. So, the state can invoke any laws or dictate the modus operandi of journalism. On the contrary, registering and licensing journalists, in my view, will infuse the much-needed discipline and respect in the profession.

Registration of journalists should come with sanctions and whoever deliberately offends the rules should be prepared to face the consequences, however unfavourable they may be. For instance, because journalists are not registered or licensed, they have nothing that stops them from abusing their privilege.

They know even if they do a bad job, nobody is going to appraise them at the end of the year and they can carry on with their impunity because there is not threat of being deregistered. When they take bribes to kill stories or defame some people and eventually get discovered or sacked by their employers, they are easily taken on by other media houses.

In an orderly profession, this automatic media house hopping would not happen without scrutiny. There should be an orderly investigation into this person, and if found guilty, they should be punished, blacklisted or barred from practicing.

Journalists cannot call themselves professionals when they don't seem to agree on any standards and ethics! Even when rules are written, we choose and pick which ones to follow and disregard. To a lawyer, for instance, their practising certificate is renewed every year.

And before it is renewed, certain conditions have to be met, among them is good conduct and the way they have discharged their duties with the clients. If they have cases with the Law Council where they are accused of diverting the clients' money or breached any fiduciary relationship with the client, it is unlikely that their certificate will be renewed.

A practising certificate to a lawyer is a lifeline and is guarded jealously. The fortification of this certificate is not in erecting walls around or keeping it in a stronger safe, it is in one's deeds. When they abuse it, the risk being suspended or disbarred.

And because of these strict regulations, society has been protected from the crooks in the legal profession. It is still an imperfect profession but at least there are steps being taken to keep it within acceptable bounds. And in the same vein, society has come to respect the profession and also been afforded a platform to complain when they are wronged by their lawyers.

The law can be amended and allow the practising journalists to renew their certificates every five years. The botched-up Uganda Journalists Association (UJA) election wouldn't arise if journalists were licensed and registered.

The number of registered journalists would be known and therefore, complaints about bacuba (fake) voters would not arise. UJA has credibility issues. I have never been a member of UJA, partly because the leadership has been suspect and also because I didn't see any professional value they would add to my career if I joined them.

Twitter: @piuskm

The author is the finance director, The Observer Media Ltd.

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