Media Law and Policy in Uganda: an appraisal on legal and policy issues in journalism in Uganda
The word "media" is adopted from the plural of the Latin word "medium". To mean news, entertainment, education, data and promotional messages are sent world-wide through this type of communication channels. Every broadcasting medium like newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, billboards, direct mail, telephone, fax and internet are part of what is the media. In Uganda a system of customary law applied in Uganda prior to Britain declaring it a protectorate in 1884 and establishing colonial administrative law throughout the territory. In Buganda, largest of the traditional kingdoms in present-day Uganda, the kabaka (king) appointed a trusted official, the katikkiro, to be in charge of the kingdoms administrative and judicial systems. The country was never fully colonized as non-Africans were not allowed to acquire freeholds. Following the rise of African nationalism, a constitutional monarchy with a government based on the British model was implemented in 1955, and in 1957 political parties emerged and direct elections were held. Uganda became an independent commonwealth nation on 9th October 1962 with Milton Obote as prime minister. Within four years, however, Obote abrogated this constitution and declared himself president under an interim constitution. Following an attempt on his life in 1969, Obote banned opposition political parties, leaving himself the country de facto absolute ruler. Less than two years later, on 25th January 1971, Obote was ousted in a military coup led by armed forces commander Idi Amin Dada. Amin declared himself president, dissolved parliament and amended the constitution to give himself absolute power. The subsequent eight years proved a reign of terror marked by political repression, ethic persecution, gross human rights abuses (including extra judicial killings) nepotism, corruption and economic mismanagement. Obote was given sanctuary by Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere, and was joined by some 20,000 followers. A year later, a group of these exiles attempted, unsuccessfully, to invade Uganda and remove Amin, who blamed Nyerere for backing and arming his enemies. Relations between the two states remained strained for many years. By 1977, the Uganda economy was floundering as was Amin’s hold on power. In an attempt to bolster his position, Amin ordered troops to attack Ugandan exiles in the Kagera salient, a narrow strip of Tanzania that juts north past Rwanda and Burundi and forms part of the southern border of Uganda. On 21 January 1979, Nyerere ordered a Tanzanian invasion of Uganda. By early April, Tanzanian forces had captured the capital, Kampala and Amin had fled the country. Tanzanian troops then spread throughout Uganda to maintain law and order during preparations for elections. As there was no potential successor who enjoyed national support, Obote was returned to the presidency in December 1980, but his government struggled to suppress opposition. In 1985, Obote was ousted in another military coup, this time led by Brigadier General Tito Okello, who ruled for six months before being deposed by the rebel National Resistance Army led by Yoweri Museveni, who was installed as president. Following promulgation of a new constitution in October 1995, Museveni won Uganda’s first ever direct presidential election. In a referendum in July 2005, 92.5% supported restoring multiparty politics. The following month, parliament voted to change the constitution to allow Museveni to run for more than two terms. He is now in his fifth five-year term of office, opposition leaders claimed, however, that the 2016 election was marred by voter intimidation, arrests of opposition leaders and other irregularities. The Museveni years have proved a period of relative political and economic stability. Gross domestic product (GDP) in Uganda was worth US$26.37 billion in 2015, with GDP per capita ranking 37th of 53 African nations.16 While Uganda surpassed the millennium Development Goals target of halving poverty by 2015, and made significant progress in reducing hunger and empowering women, a large proportion of its current (2016) population of 37.8 million almost half of whom are aged under 15 years remains vulnerable to falling back into poverty. The country has substantial natural resources, including fertile soils, regular rainfall, small deposits of copper, gold and other minerals, and recently discovered oil, with estimated deposits of at least 3.5 billion barrels. Agriculture is the most important economic sector, employing more than two-thirds of the workforce. Coffee accounts for the bulk of export revenues. Until the late 1990s, Uganda had only one television station, the state-owned Uganda Television, which began broadcasting the year after independence. It is now called the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, and also operates five radio stations. Competition came in the form of Sanyu TV and Wavah, and opened the way for other stations. Radio was dominated by the state-owned Radio Uganda until the early 1990s, when the first independent radio stations received licenses to operate. There are now more than 200 radio stations serving the country. There are some 30 newspapers in Uganda, almost all of them publishing in English. The state-owed New Vision is Uganda’s oldest newspaper and has the largest national circulation. The Daily Monitor is independent, and the second oldest newspaper in the country. Red Pepper, a daily tabloid that began publication in 2001, is arguably Uganda’s most controversial news medium with its mix of politics, sensationalism and scandal. When, in May 2013, Red Pepper and the rival Daily Monitor published a confidential letter purportedly written by Army general David Sejjusa calling for an investigation into allegations of a plot to assassinate people who were opposed to the Museveni family holding on to political power in perpetuity, the offices of both publications were raided by the police, who shut down operations for several days. Since then, however, Red Pepper has extended its reach by upgrading its online presence. Social media have made a significant impact on the country, but were ordered blocked by the Uganda Communication Commission in advance of Museveni’s latest inauguration. Some analysts fear this could become a routine government practice. That said, relations between the media and the government are widely recognized as having improved since the mid-1980s, with government members holding open press briefings and making television appearances. This may, it is noted, have much to do with the fact that journalists now have avenues of legal recourse available to them. Media plays an important role in our lives as we experience the outer world more by print and digital media than directly. Media and journalism practice in Uganda is regulated by the laws of the land, supreme of which is the Uganda constitution. But over time, legislation in the country have ended up controlling instead of regulating in an acrimonious relationship between the media resulting in an acrimonious relationship between the media and successive regimes alongside other non-state actors. There are indeed over a dozen post-independence laws that have been enacted and have a bearing on the practice of draconian laws still remain in the law books. Those that have been amended such as the Electronic Media Act 2000 have been replaced by pieces of legislations that are vague and or retrogressive. Some specific sections of these laws have been ruled unconstitutional by the courts of law, such as the sedition and publication of false news provisions in the Penal Code Act. However, these still remain on the law books and have been used to charge journalists even when it is clear the charges would be dropped. For many observers, the aim has always been to fatigue the journalists in the process. Where the laws have been in adequate in squeezing the life out of media, the state has tended to resort to other forms of control such as economic sanctions and closures of media houses, physical attacks, threats and harassment of journalists, among others, including denial of adverting revenue. Indeed, in 1993, the government slapped an advertising ban on the monitor (now daily monitor) as punishment for its critical reporting on government. The ban was later lifted in 1997, but the damage had already been done. In May 2013, the government closed down operations of two media houses- Red Pepper and Monitor Publications for 11 days, together with their subsidiaries leading to massive losses in revenue. The closure followed the publication of a letter by Daily monitor, purported to have been written by the then Coordinator of intelligence, Gen David Ssejusa to his junior instructing them to investigate allegations of assassination plot against those opposed to the installation of Brigadier Muhoozi Keinerugaba (President Museveni’s son) as the president’s heir. The subsequent public debate in both social and main stream media licensed the government. Three daily monitor journalists: Richard Wanambwa, Risdel Kasasira and Don Wanyama, the Managing Editor, had been interrogated by the criminal investigations over the source of the letter. They were ordered to handover the letter but even before the interrogations could be concluded, the police obtained a court order to search both daily monitor and red pepper premises for the said letter and other sensitive information respectively. In the process, however, police suspended the operation of the two publications by switching off the printing presses and cordoning off daily monitor’s sister radio stations: KFM and Dembe fm.31 These acts by the state have led to a situation where the media operates in fear of the repercussions of their actions, with several reported cases of self-censor ship and spiking of public interest investigative stories deemed to be critical to the establishment and thus dangerous to publish or broadcast. In June 2, 2013, a few days after the state lifted the ban on monitor publications, the Sunday monitor publications, the Sunday monitor (daily monitors Sunday edition) was forced to pull down a lead story “Museveni ranks low in East Africa” that was adjudged to have cast the president in what some thought was bad light. In his explanation for the story’s removal, Monitor Publications Managing Editor, Mr. Alex Asimwe, said: “We agreed to hold back the story because it had not been handled very well.” The importance of media freedom and freedom of expression in the realization of other human rights and democratic processes cannot be overestimated due to the central role the media plays in decision making processes. In circumstances where the free flow of information and ideas is constrained, other human rights as well as democracy itself, are under threat. Particularly mechanisms, which are cornerstone of good governance, depend on the free flow of information and ideas, since citizen engagement can only be effective if people are informed and have the means to express themselves. Other social values including good governance, public accountability and individual fulfillment, combating corruption also depend on respect for freedom of expression. Given its power, those in leadership have always sought means to tame the media using a number of avenues including very restrictive legislation, which prescribe punitive measures in case of breach. For journalists therefore, an understanding of the legal and policy frameworks that affect media and freedom of expression in Uganda is critical since this empowers them not only to appreciate but also to take full control of their situations. Particularly so for freelance journalists and others working for small media houses who may fall victim to the different provisions without the readily available legal support that their colleagues working for big media house enjoy. As a country, Uganda has ratified and assented to several international legal instruments that bind her to respect the human rights provisions there in and these can therefore be cited to challenge some of the provisions in our national laws that are not compliant, but also in demanding that the government guarantees the respect and protection of human rights in any new legislation.
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