Press freedom in Uganda: Myth or reality?
Given that the political players recognise the media's capacity to influence political processes, is press freedom in Uganda an illusory myth?
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First published: December 26, 2008
Kenyan authorities early December arrested and detained a number of journalists who protested against a new regulation seen by many as an infringement on media freedoms. The incident in Kenya gives us an opportunity to make a fresh assessment of the media freedoms in Uganda. The debate on media freedoms in Uganda, like elsewhere in Africa particularly after the end of the cold war, is an ongoing one; and it comes a long way.
Due to the vibrancy of the mass media since 1986, press freedom in Uganda is now viewed as a function of human rights in the democratisation process and good governance.
The debate is therefore on the challenge to reconcile the media's original role as the vehicle of civic awareness and the realisation that partisan political interests tend to take the media as the third force in political contestations.
How did we reach here? Between 1986 and 2006 (non-partisan Movement era), the media found duty in articulating and representing popular views and interests. In the absence of organised political groups, the media's articulation of popular interests was viewed by the political elites as a function of politics. However, the political elite could only be tolerant to the media in so far as there was no organised political contest at the time. That is how what Charles Onyango-Obbo calls the Political Commentariat evolved as a force in the media and Uganda's body politik.
Needless to say, people like Charles Onyango-Obbo, Andrew Mwenda, Onapito Ekomoloit, Peter Mwesige, Kyazze Simwogerere, Robert Kabushenga and many others made their careers by making passionate commentaries on popular interests.
As night follows day, things would have to change when competitive political contests came up. Any articulation of popular interests is now viewed as an aid to the political opposition. When competitive political contests resurfaced in 1996, the media had generated a lot of public interest in public affairs. The media therefore found itself in the unseemly position of being viewed as partisan player. Any attempt to remind them that their role is that of a spectator (and not active player) is viewed by many as encroaching on media freedoms. That is the gist of the debate on whether there is press freedom in Uganda or not.
So, is there press freedom in Uganda? With the political players viewing the media as a third force, albeit without the encumbrances that come with being in the ring of political contestations, the state has sought to moderate the media's attitude. This has been viewed by many observers as a roll back of the early gains of the Museveni regime.
Without any conspicuous ideological differences, political groups are now merely involved in rhetoric oratory whose pay load is only of psychological value. This scenario has rendered the media as 'the ring' in which political contests are fought. Media reports of party members defecting to another party today and vice versa tomorrow are a testimony to of this scenario.
So, given that the political players recognise the media's capacity to influence political processes, is press freedom in Uganda an illusory myth or an ipso facto?
For fear of being detained by hypothetical interrogation; I think we should start from the beginning. The relative press freedom in Uganda is the result of the experience and spirit of the armed rebel movement that mothered the political leadership in power to day.
During the armed struggle, the rebel movement pursued what they called a policy of 'open criticism and open debate' as a tool to resolve disagreements. It is this openness they brought to government when they assumed state power in 1986. This formed the basis for a deliberate government attitude to run an open administration.
Needless to say, this posture was the basis for the liberalisation of the electronic media and the resurgent influence of the print media on social and political behaviour.
So, my very personal assessment is that there is enough press freedom to cause change of attitudes; political or otherwise. The problem however lies in the structure of the body politic.
Other than centres of political leadership, there are no other centres of influence in Uganda. And with the introduction of partisan politics, any other leadership centre is required to appreciate the supremacy of political leadership. This has led to the politicisation of all aspects of national life; even objective policy issues are now clouded in partisan political interests. The media is just trapped in this quagmire of Uganda's body politic.
With the liberalisation of the media, the control and dissemination of information is no longer the exclusive preserve of the state. This has rendered the state as merely 'just first among equals' in the field. However, in spite of this status quo where the state is a mere player, information as a constituent tool for rallying the nation for policy absorption remains the responsibility of the state.
The interests of the private media are clearly very different from those of the state. And the state's attempt to bring her influence to bear on private players is sometimes the object of friction between the media and state. And of course the media cries foul and claim abuse of human rights.
Whereas the government's posture of toleration for free media feeds into universal charters on press freedom and human rights, we should recognise government's deliberate policy on press freedom. Indeed there are states in the region that compare poorly with Uganda's score on press freedom notwithstanding the adoption of those universal charters and constitutional provisions.
Yet we must recognise the fact that the political elite are increasingly becoming jittery over an assertive media. Sometimes this jitteriness leads to a hurried hand in responding to the media's actions or a deliberate inaction on media related policies.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the debate on whether there is press freedom in Uganda is the criminalisation of defamation.
Some observers have argued that compared to the regional index, Uganda scores high on press freedom. And whenever the government is accused of intolerance, the response is to refer to its earlier laurels for championing private media operations. This has bred a leisurely attitude to issues related to media policy.
So, given the above, the argument is whether the relative press freedom is because of the government or in spite of government's actions. Who should take the laurels for the relative press freedoms: the bold media players or the state's deliberate action?
Either way one looks at it, you still faces the challenge to explain the proliferation of the media-related business since 1993. Somehow, one has to take recognition of the media vibrancy as a result of government's deliberate policy on liberalisation of the media industry. No need to go into figures here yet.
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First published: December 26, 2008
Asuman Bisiika is a senior journalist and political analyst on Ugandan and Great Lakes regional affairs. He is also a panellist on several radio talk shows in Kampala. Bisiika is currently a private media consultant attached to Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd.