Sunday May 5 2013

Ignorance, arrogance stand in the way of media freedom in Uganda

By Bernard Tabaire

The 20th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day swept past on Friday. It was celebrated under the theme “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media”.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), the world’s chief authority on matters of freedom of expression, the theme aimed to draw attention to “safety of journalists, the issue of impunity, and online safety”.

The inclusion of online safety is key for us in Uganda. About two years ago, police arrested and charged Mr Timothy Kalyegira with criminal libel for writing critically of the government in his online publication – The Uganda Record.

Around the same time, the telecoms regulator, Uganda Communications Commission, asked Internet service providers to block Twitter and Facebook for at least 24 hours.

There had been attempts as well to get mobile phone companies to block text messages with toxic words such as “revolution”.

The government made these moves during moments of heightened tension in the country: towards the end of campaigns for the 2011 general elections, and during the walk-to-work protests against the rising cost of living that erupted in the aftermath of voting.

The government was jittery, eager to stop anything that could potentially snowball into the Arab Spring-style movement then felling kleptocrat after kleptocrat in North Africa.

The Broadcasting Council barred TV stations from relaying live images of the protests because security agents were beating up protesters and journalists on Kampala streets.

The physical harassment of journalists is still prevalent. Prison warders recently clobbered journalists covering the aftermath of a jailbreak in Kalisizo.

The government’s harassment of writers online seems to have gone with the end of the active phase of the walk-to-work protests.
That is not to say no one within the “system” is watching the online goings-on.

Free speech is so important that to gag people is a commentary on the quality of a particular government than on anything else. Secure, responsive and accountable governments go only after hate speech; they do not bother with their critics. When they do, they argue their case. They do not intimidate anyone into toeing the line - straight or zigzag.

Unesco says, appropriately, that World Press Freedom Day “serves as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom”. They should.

Countries such as Uganda have signed various international treaties, conventions and protocols committing to the unfettered exercise of freedom of speech by their citizens.

They have enshrined these values in their national constitutions. A small annual reminder does not hurt all the same.

But Unesco has another message as well regarding the day. May 3 is “also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics”.

That is a challenge to media owners and practitioners. Media owners need to stop and think about whether their outlets promote free expression and serve the public interest or they are entirely about making money.

In the long term, even medium term, a country whose citizens freely express themselves becomes more tolerant, more democratic and more stable. That is good for business.

For journalists, tough working conditions cannot be the excuse to take bribes to either kill or promote stories. Integrity amid hardship is a mark not just of professionalism, but also of general civilised conduct.

The average Ugandan journalist, also needs to show some passion, and some ambition.

Dr Peter Mwesige, my colleague at the African Centre for Media Excellence, always got alarmed whenever journalists at the Daily Monitor, where he was executive editor years ago, showed no passion for their work.

By passion he meant things like; cheerfully volunteering to return to work after signing out for the day, or staying late to cover a breaking story. One needed to have the hunger to beat the competition not so much on the newspaper sales, but in the quality of the story put out.

Passion is tied up with ambition: the desire to be the best. Excellence takes hard work. For a journalist, reading deeply and widely is crucial. So is cultivating quality sources, writing sentences that make sense. No one is even asking for verve and flair, just clarity in writing.

The average Ugandan journalist will not give you any of these. Ignorance and arrogance seem to be their stock in trade. They need not be because that is no way to advance freedom of the media and to serve the public interest.

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