18 February 2018

Uganda: Picking Up Press Lessons From Kenya

On January 30, 2018, the Kenyan government blocked four news channels: Citizen TV, Inooro TV, NTV and KTN because they announced plans to air the swearing-in ceremony of opposition leader Raila Odinga which took place on that day.

As soon as the government put the media houses off-air, Kenyans took to the streets in Nairobi to protest this action because they were direct beneficiaries of the media channels. Apart from going to the streets, Kenyans took to their social media accounts, (Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp) to vehemently protest the governments' action on the media houses.

On February 1, lawyers rushed to court to also protest the closure and the court ordered a 14-day suspension of the government's shutdown to allow for the legal challenge to be heard. These actions were being taken by the constituents who consumed the products of the media channels. And this is the lesson I want Ugandans to pick up.

In Uganda, it has almost become the norm that the government will shut down any media house as and when it deems fit. During the 2016 elections, the government stretched its hands beyond the media houses to social media. Generally speaking, the space for media freedom is shrinking by the day.

From September 2017 up until mid-January this year, several media houses in Uganda were shut down or intimidated by the body mandated to regulate them, the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC).

The instructions restrained media houses from broadcasting debate on the constitutional amendment of Article 102(b) or they would be shut down and their licenses revoked. Many media houses complied and started to shy away from broadcasting a national issue that was to change the political landscape of Uganda.

Editors were summoned at police for questioning over stories; other media houses such as NBS received written warnings; Top Radio hang a UCC warning on its notice board. A few weeks later, Red Pepper offices were shut down over a political story. Not only was the newspaper put out of circulation, its sister radio station which did not publish anything controversial was also shut down for over a month.

All through this time, the Ugandan society, even those who missed Red Pepper, kept quiet, except for a few scattered voices from civil society which eventually died down because partly the media practitioners preferred to comply rather than carry out their mandate of reporting.

A journalist simply keeps records and publishes them for future reference. And when keeping a record, usually you will state the facts and it should never be a case of being anti or pro government, but rather a case of providing objective information to the public to decide.

The media in Uganda is not only faced with a retrogressive law that does not provide for the protection of journalists, there is also lack of professionalism from some journalists. This compromises the security of media houses and the journalists.

A journalist should be able to collect and document concrete evidence for stories. Sadly, just when a given journalist has mastered the trade, they leave the newsroom and new freelance journalists take up their space. This is a big problem that the Ugandan media must address, internally.

But even where journalists have remained professional, there are many incidents of when the police intimidate them into not publishing stories which would contribute to genuine public discourse. In my view, to tackle the problem of journalist intimidation and therefore a black-out on society in terms of information, the Ugandan public should vow to learn from Kenya.

We must vow that every time a media house is shut down, Ugandans will protest using social media and trumpet their issues, regionally and internationally. If the local press cannot pick the story, as will be the case in many incidents, the international media will pick it up and keep it running. The idea is not to relent every time the tormentor rears their ugly head.

Secondly, media houses should cultivate a culture of obtaining facts and only document concrete evidence that even if a court case were produced, the evidence would speak for itself.

The author is the communication and advocacy manager, FHRI/CCEDU.

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