Tomorrow, May 3,ganda will join the rest of the world to celebrate the World Press Freedom Day, a day that was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 to essentially have citizens do some soul-searching about the state of world media. The World Press Freedom Day provides us as a country an opportunity to celebrate the principles of press freedom, assess the state of press freedom and defend the media from any attacks.
The theme for today’s celebrations is quite instructive: ‘Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies’. The question we face is: whether our media is being allowed the space to harness the resources at its disposal, to build a peaceful, inclusive Uganda with information, disseminated unfettered and with citizens given the platform to access impartial information.
This year’s World Press Freedom Day comes on the backdrop of the 2016 general election in Uganda where our disposition as a country that believes in press freedom as a prerequisite for democratization was put to serious test. Campaigns were marked by physical attacks and threats on journalists that made it difficult for journalists to do their work. Incidents of security operatives beating up journalists who were simply doing the noble duty of providing information to enable full citizen participation in the elections are well documented.
During elections, journalists are obligated to be information resources to enable voters make informed decisions. Uncritical reporting of campaign manifestos, promises and pronouncements by journalists during elections denies voters a chance to make neutral assessment of candidates. Referencing the attacks on media that marred the 2016 elections, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in its media freedom ranking, had Uganda drop by 10 places from 102 in 2016 to 112 in 2017.
In its index, RSF was blunt. RSF unequivocally noted that, “acts of intimidation and violence against journalists are an almost daily occurrence in Uganda. The 2016 presidential election saw serious media freedom violations, including threats to close down media outlets…” Any attempt to muzzle the press especially during elections, inevitably has ripple effects on the entire electoral process as voters are be kept in darkness.
A free press is the cornerstone of democratic elections. With traditional media stifled, the fallback position for voters would naturally have been social media. Social media is a unique avenue of engagement as it allows users to take charge of their communication and information dissemination, uninhibited by the controls applied on traditional media. Even after clamping down on traditional media, government functionaries still remained paranoid of free-flowing conversations about the 2016 elections on social media.
Government took the radical step of shutting down social media and mobile Internet; effectively blocking communication platforms for an estimated 11 million Ugandans. Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) argued that the social media blockade was for security reasons but the writing on the wall was that the blockade was to frustrate efforts by opposition political parties to live stream election results via social media.
Even under such circumstances, some Ugandans managed to access social media using Virtual Private Network (VPN), a technology tool that circumvents censorship. The tragedy with affronts on free media in Uganda is that victims have very limited spaces from which to seek genuine redress. The case of journalist Andrew Lwanga is instructive here.
Lwanga, a TV cameraman, was beaten up by the then DPC of Old Kampala Police Station Joram Mwesigye as he covered a procession by youth activists a couple of years back. Lwanga’s spine was severely damaged and to date he has not been able to go back to work.
After nearly two years of legal gymnastics, court recently ordered Mwesigye to compensate Lwanga with just shs5 million in addition to paying shs1 million court fine. The punishment handed to Mwesigye did not by any measure match the harm he had inflicted on Lwanga. As we commemorate the World Press Freedom Day, let us ask ourselves the uncomfortable questions about the state of our media in regard to Uganda’s democratization process.
The writer is the Coordinator, Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU) This story was also filed bt The Red Pepper