Commentary

Let’s protect the media from political interference

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By Catherine Anite

Posted  Tuesday, December 17   2013 at  02:00

In Summary

.. requiring broadcasters to “ensure that what is broadcast is not contrary to public morality” also establishes a vague standard open to political interference in it’s interpretation

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Uganda is frequently praised for its relatively free media environment that has allowed numerous radio and television stations to flourish. Other countries in the region dramatically curtail media freedom and make it difficult or unsafe for journalists to operate. Uganda’s laws governing media regulation, however, fall short of guaranteeing the freedom and independence of the media.

In the current politically charged environment, the legal framework regulating the media, especially the Uganda Communications Act, has enabled political interference to limit critical voices from the media. To eliminate the encroachment on the freedom of the media, Uganda needs to overhaul the Uganda Communications Act (UCA) and introduce new legislation that guarantees a regulator that is sufficiently independent from any form of political or economic interference.

The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa states that, “Any public authority that exercises powers in the areas of broadcast or telecommunications regulation should be independent and adequately protected against interference, particularly of a political or economic nature.” Yet the UCA does not meet these standards.

For example, section 9(3) of the Act provides that the Minister of ICT will appoint all members of the Board of the Uganda Communications Commission, with the approval of Cabinet. Section 7 allows the minister to issue policy guidelines that the UCC must follow. Section 16(4)(d) allows for the minister to remove the Executive Director of the UCC for a range of grounds including “misbehaviour.” Section 46(2) allows the minister to direct the Commission to commence an inquiry. Together, these sections allow for political interference into the affairs of the UCC and place power over the UCC firmly in the hands of the minister.

In the Act, the minister also retains considerable power over the UCC through the ability to influence its finances. Section 67(1) (f) provides that the UCC receives funds from sources acceptable to the minister, and Section 70 provides the minster with the power to approve annual budgets for the Commission. Section 72 requires ministerial approval for use of surplus funds generated by the UCC.

Section 13 allows the minister to set remuneration and allowances for members of the Board of UCC. Overall, the minister retains considerable authority over UCC’s finances through budgetary approval and other controls.

Other provisions in the Act provide loopholes through which political and economic interference can undermine the independence of the UCC. A lack of clear criteria for licensing makes it possible for political interference in the licensing process.

Including “social, cultural and economic values” as criteria for licensing introduces vagueness and opportunity for political interference in licensing. Likewise, requiring broadcasters to “ensure that what is broadcast is not contrary to public morality” also establishes a vague standard open to political interference in its interpretation. Overall, the Act provides a number of tools that political leaders can misuse to restrict freedom of expression.

In developing a more independent media regulatory framework, Uganda should consider its international obligations and how an independent regulatory framework is established in countries like Australia. Protecting the media from political interference will help it fulfill its role as a guardian of the freedom of expression and a voice of the people.

Ms Anite is the Head Legal, Human Rights Network for journalists. catherine.anite@gmail.com & David Okello Programme Manager, Centre for Public Interest Law.