Kampala- Yesterday, journalists in Uganda and well wishers joined the world to celebrate the Press Freedom Day.
Since the first newspapers were established in Europe in the 1600’s, a century and a half after Gutenberg had invited a printing press, those who wield power discovered that the press offered the best platform to disseminate information to the masses.
Unfortunately, since then, governments have regarded the press men as dangerous and rebellious – and many draconian laws named after a brute ancient Greek legislator Draco have been made in different countries of the world to muzzle the press.
Thus since 1600, journalists world over have been fighting to break the York of oppression, especially from dictatorial governments. History of freedom of the press has since been that of a battle after a battle for freedom against those who strive to gag the open expression of opinion in the media.
For instance in 1644, the British parliament ratified the Licensing Act. Unlike before, no one was allowed to print – except with a licence and the government gave exclusive rights to the stationers’ companies which exercised a censorship of the press and the power to confiscate unauthorised publications. That marked the beginning of gagging the press in the world. The British enacted similar laws here with a slight difference. But the confiscation clause was retained; and vested to the governor and with revision later to the minister.
While opposing the Licensing Act, a British intellectual and author John Milton published the famous paper Areopagica (1644) in defence of freedom of press. He wrote: “… give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely, according to conscience, above all other liberties…” Although the Licensing Act was abolished in 1975, freedom of the press in England was won after John Wilkes who was arrested in 1763 when his newspaper, the North Briton , published a criticism of the King’s speech but won the case in the courts of law.
The case of US
In the United States of America, freedom of the press was also won after a long struggle. The trial of journalist John Peter Zenger imprisoned in 1734 for criticising the government for interfering with the courts concluded with the establishment of the right of the American press. Editorial opinion, previously forbidden began to reappear and in 1784, 50 years after the journalist had won the case, a guarantee of the freedom of the press was written into the constitution of the United States of America.
In Uganda, one such a battle was won on August 25, 2010 when the constitutional court annulled the sedition law in Uganda. This was after Andrew Mwenda a Uganda journalist then working with the Monitor Publications and the Eastern African Media Institute, had won the case against the Attorney General. Previously, Mwenda had been arrested and produced before court on August 15, 2005 in Kampala and charged with sedition against the person of the President of Republic of Uganda before he appealed the case. Nevertheless, the struggle continues.
First journalists to be accused of sedition
A one Masembe, the publisher of Gambuze, a Luganda newspaper, his editor Matani G Luyima and Y. Tabula the reporter, were the first recorded journalists ever in the country to be accused and convicted of sedition.
Masembe was accused and convicted of publishing the Bataka party’s letter on January 10, 1947 protesting against the infamous colonial paper 210 and was sentenced to 15 months in jail.
Matani.G. Luyima, the paper’s editor, was accused and convicted for publishing Francis Semakula Mulumba’s Bataka representative’s telegram to Governor Johnston. H. Hall. He was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, while Y. Tabula, the reporter, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
While draconian laws have hampered the media growth in Uganda, poor reading culture too accounts for the struggling of the industry.
It is unbelievable that since 1900 when Mengo Notes, the first news publication, was established in Uganda, records show that there is no daily or weekly newspaper in Uganda that has ever hit a 50,000 copies sale on a normal day. While there has been misinformation by many writers that at independence, Uganda Argus, the leading English newspaper then, was selling more than 60,000 copies a day, records available disprove that.
The Uganda Argus of October 12, 1962 reported the ‘Uganda Independence Argus’ was the largest ever circulated English newspaper in the country. A record of 45,000 copies of 72 pages were published and sold out in Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika (Tanzania), there by setting a record of the largest circulated newspaper in Uganda on a single day.
The paper also stated that the record setter publication was produced by a team of 87 native Ugandans in all sections, 26 Asians and 12 Europeans. The Uganda Argus was also the first newspaper in Uganda to be a member of the Audit Bureau of Certified Accounts (ABC) in 1959.
In December 1961, the first certification was done and the sale was recorded at 14,200 copies of 12 pages per day according to the ABC report released in early 1962.
According to the Uganda Protectorate Annual report 1960, the Luganda Mawulire newspaper was the leading vernacular newspaper. The eight-page newspaper had a weekly 15,000 copy sale claim. Since independence, the press in Uganda has grown but only with minimum results in copy sale with the highest being about 34,000 copies. So, why has the press as a market place of ideas to discuss freely failed to bloom in Uganda? Is it because sometimes some individuals in power disregard the independent voice and will do all to muzzle it?
On February 27, 1986, then Associate Professor Mahmood Mamdani, a week after his second return from exile, made a public lecture at Makerere University about intelligentsia.
He said: “Whether the intelligentsia can contribute creatively to the society at large depends partly on whether democracy is practiced in that society… There can be no democracy in the sphere of ideas unless there is freedom of discussion. For, ideological struggle is not like a military struggle. Its weapons are reason and argument, not guns and bullets. You cannot force someone to think like you, you can only persuade them to do so.
“Only a regime that is profoundly undemocratic can confuse criticism with sabotage and opposition with treason”.
From Prof Mamdani’s observation about intelligentsia, to what extent can free press operate in Uganda?
Rights body says
The Human Rights Watch May 2010 report stated that since political campaigns in 2005, more than 30 journalists were summoned by the police or charged with crimes such as sedition, incitement to violence, and promoting sectarianism. At least 10 radio journalists and talk show panelists were charged in the same year.
The report adds, “During riots in the capital, Kampala, in September 2009, Ugandan police and soldiers beat and detained journalists who were trying to report on unfolding events or debate the cause of the riots on the radio. The government shut down four Kampala radio stations without notice or hearing. It also arbitrarily banned open-air broadcasting, known as bimeeza, a popular forum for public debate. That ban remains in force.”
The Press Freedom Index Report 2011, titled Shrinking and Sinking by the Human Rights Network of Journalists revealed that in 2011 alone, 107 journalists were either tortured by security agencies or had their equipment confiscated or destroyed.
In May 2012, the government proposed a law to ban journalists from entering Parliament with electric gadgets for the law makers’ privacy while in the chambers. While in 2013, Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda documented 124 violations against journalists and media practitioners. In the first quarter of 2014, over 25 cases of violations have been documented so far.
Uganda has slipped 6 places from 104th to 110th in the ranking of countries upholding press freedom, according to HURINET-U.