Sunday May 4 2014

Disarm Kayihura of his tear gas first if you want press freedom

By Bernard Tabaire

A country that has “democracy issues” like Uganda cannot be a free press paradise at the same time. You kind of know that, but it helps when someone juggles the numbers and firms up the point.

After all, “media freedom is a core element of democracy, and is one of the more important indicators that can be used to ascertain the health and trajectory of a country’s democratic institutions,” says a report the US-based Centre for International Media Assistance (CIMA) released two weeks ago.

By the Numbers: Tracing the Statistical Correlation Between Press Freedom and Democracy is a little gem of a study. It attempts to show “through broad empirical analysis and a range of country case studies that press freedom is an integral part of freedom generally.

Trends in one move, most often in tandem with trends in the other, suggesting both that media freedom is unlikely to emerge and be sustained in the absence of improvements in broader political rights and civil liberties and that declines in press freedom almost always accompany or foreshadow a downturn in freedom more broadly.”

This study is the result of examining data from two annual reports compiled by Freedom House – a US-based “independent watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world” – going back decades. Freedom in the World report rates countries in “terms of their level of political rights and civil liberties”, while Freedom of the Press scores countries “in terms of their level of media freedom”.

Uganda is not highlighted in the study although it has been scored by both reports over the decades. Both rate it “partly free”.

The latest Freedom of the Press report, issued on Thursday, two days ahead of World Press Freedom Day yesterday, shows Uganda to have dropped three points. It ties with Liberia in ranking at number 125 out of 197 countries assessed in 2013.

We ranked 118 the year before.
The country is faulted for “an increase in harassment and denial of physical access to news venues, especially by government actors”, the shut-down of the Monitor Publications and the Red Pepper plus “cases of government officials forcing radio talk-show hosts off the air, bringing them in for police questioning, and suspending programmes”.

For similar reasons, the Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index rankings also saw Uganda slip: to number 110 out of 180 countries assessed in 2013, down from 104 in 2012.
Uganda lost ground in the Freedom in the World standings as well – the country’s political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 due to arrests in 2013 of “Opposition leaders and a new law aimed at restricting free assembly by the opposition and civil society.

The government also stepped up its harassment of critical media … and of the LGBT …(gay) community …”
Uganda slid rather dramatically in press freedom rankings in 2005, moving from the lower end of the “partly free” category to the higher end and has stayed there since. It is now a mere two points away from entering the “not free” territory. That is a shame.

So what happened around 2005 to launch Uganda onto an undesirable trajectory and keep it there?

It started with changing of the Constitution to allow for a life presidency – nearly a decade later we are still working hard to advance that project with ruling NRM party MPs hired to buy support all over. There is now no attempt whatsoever to disguise political corruption. Political chutzpah has been redefined.

From ring-fencing the presidency, we have seen Opposition leaders consistently assaulted and variously harassed, political demonstrations quashed with brutality, the courts raided by armed men with impunity, media houses repeatedly closed to force self-censorship, laws that restrict political and civil liberties have been enacted and more are planned, and electoral reforms still remain a mirage further poisoning the political landscape.
That is the general “democratic” environment we have put ourselves in over the last several years. And we are where we are because it benefits the people in power. It is therefore not surprising when the CIMA study authors report: “The findings of the past few years indicate a stepped-up drive by authoritarian governments to weaken precisely the elements of democratic governance that pose the most serious threats to repressive and corrupt rule: independent civil society groups, a free press, and the rule of law.”

The point is that one cannot hope to expand media freedom and freedom of expression without at the same time fighting to expand democratic space and vice versa. Which is to say those fighting for democracy and those fighting for media rights in a place like Uganda must band together. The imperative has always been obvious, but it will possibly be more so now that we have some robust study findings staring at us.

Mr Tabaire is a media consultant with the African Centre for Media Excellence.