Wednesday March 24 2010

Buturo, what exactly constitutes national interest?

By Jenkins Kiwanuka

Describing what he thought should be the ideal relationship between the media and policy makers, an American Senator once reported an instance where a close friend of his among the Washington press correspondents substantially influenced his judgment on a vote in the Senate.

“I had damn near decided to vote against a particular proposal just for the hell of it, to let the administration know what I thought of their lousy way of doing things. I called this guy in, to talk over it with him. He pleaded with me to vote for the proposal. He was so intense about it, and so much better experienced (substantively) than I, that I gave him the benefit of the doubt and voted for the programme against my better judgment”.

That happened in America some 60 years ago, but it is absurd that instead of borrowing a leaf from the American Senator, the government in Uganda today is busy enacting a law, the proposed Press and Journalists (Amendment) Bill 2010, that is obviously intended to oppress, suppress and gag the media.

It seeks to introduce, among other things, new licensing conditions for newspapers that include restrictions on foreign ownership, strengthening the disciplinary committee of the government Media Council and giving the Council powers to close media houses.

Justifying the need for it, the Minister of State for Ethics, Dr Nsaba Buturo, said the government had no ill intentions against the media, but that “our media is still young and does not understand what constitutes national interest”. It follows therefore, that the amendment is also intended to force the media to understand what constitutes Uganda’s ‘national interest’.

But why, if it is a matter of ignorance on the part of the media, doesn’t the Minister for Ethics introduce ‘friendly’ training programmes on what constitutes Uganda’s ‘national interest’ instead of persecuting those who don’t understand it? What constitutes Uganda’s national interest today, by the way?

The media has reported, and the government has agreed that Uganda is corrupt. The media has observed, and the government has not denied that the agreements relating to oil exploration favour foreign companies. The media has reported that the global Aids/HIV and malaria prevention funds were stollen, and the government is prosecuting some of the culprits. The media has reported the Chogm funds scam, and the government continues to probe whether the funds were either misappropriated or not accounted for. Which one of those reports constitutes a breach of ‘national interest’?

Every day we hear appeals by the Opposition and activists’ groups to donor governments and agencies not to grant funds to Uganda because of human rights abuses, but I have heard of no law that prevents them from making those appeals. Elsewhere, I once attended a party hosted by a foreign government for the then Speaker of the Uganda Parliament who was visiting with a delegation composed of government and opposition MPs. Because the hosts also included government and opposition MPs, the Ugandans divided the party into two and started blaming each other before their hosts for the situation that obtained back home at that time. That was obviously a breach of ‘national interest’ but I have never heard of a law that remedies such confrontations.

As I have cautioned before, amicable relations between the government and the media will not be brought about by persecution of the media through draconian laws. What we need in our pursuit of peaceful and harmonious co-existence is understanding and respect of each other’s role like the American Senator did. For ministers like Kirunda Kivejinja, a former journalist and now Minister of Internal Affairs, future stable relations between the rulers and the media will be a better legacy to leave behind for their labours than the draconian laws they are putting in place.
Mr Kiwanuka is a journalist and retired foreign service officer
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