Another rough season for local journalism is underway. Arrests. Assaults. Interrogations. Confiscation of equipment. Shutdown of FM stations. Ban on live broadcasts. Suspension of presenters and producers. Threats of suspension or revocation of broadcast licences.
The intrepid people at Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda do a great service in tracking these abuses. The current cruelties are a catalogue that shows just how grim the media picture is. This ugly picture is a reflection of the sour political mood occasioned this time around by the life presidency madness. Every time government feels significant popular pressure, it reacts with undue force. Remember walk-to-work? Apart from the political Opposition, journalists suffer most.
Presently, State/government (read NRM) agents want to control the political narrative. President Museveni’s shameless quest for life presidency is being sold as a crusade against discrimination on the basis of age. Therefore, the Constitution must be amended to allow people who are 75 years and above, as Mr Museveni will be at the next elections in 2021, to run for President. Those opposed say it’s all about one man’s ego.
The amendment must pass at any cost and anyone loudly opposed, whether within NRM or not, is an enemy of the republic and is dealt with like all traitors are: with no mercy.
Already, dissenting MPs have been physically clobbered, starting right on the floor of Parliament. Just before that happened, the media were beaten to order via regulatory intimidation. Uganda Communications Commission, the broadcast regulator, is a particularly pernicious tool used to suck air out of electronic media. UCC is doing NRM’s bidding by banning the relaying of live feed of activities that allegedly encourage discrimination, hate, violence. All that is an excuse to control debate on the age limit. As a result, the battering of MPs that unfolded on the floor of Parliament on September 27 was not broadcast live.
UCC is unapologetic about wielding its regulatory fimbo in the interests of projects such as the life presidency. It is just one more public agency that serves the narrow interests of the NRM government than it serves the public. Apart from UCC, there is the ever-present harasser of the media in Uganda, and that is the Uganda Police Force. It has its own way of interpreting its protect and serve mission. It is to protect and serve the political interests of the Big Man first and only tangentially the interests of Ugandans.
We will see more of this as tempers and temperatures continue rising over the life presidency debate period. Not just that, the harassment will continue into 2021 because once the life presidency is ratified by the “tyranny of NRM numbers” in Parliament, citizen resistance to government programmes and decisions will only keep growing.
To counter that, the government will act in more draconian ways to get its way. Journalists caught in the mix trying to tell the story will not be spared the wrath reserved for actual leaders of the dissenting masses and related entities and formations.
On the slightly brighter side, keen newsrooms and journalists will up their professional game like never before to ensure accuracy and fairness in their reports. This may still not save them, but it is a worthwhile pursuit.
Otherwise, as we have seen, small missteps in stories are being exploited to hem in the media. Instead of correcting any inaccuracies, entities ranging from Parliament to police will come down hard. Despite the decriminalisation of provisions such as false news, it is as if journalists in Uganda don’t deserve any protections.
Add that to President Museveni’s occasional denunciations, sometimes one thinks we will awake one morning to find the government has banned journalism entirely.
For now, we can be grateful that journalists in Uganda are not being killed for their work, but given the current course, it may not be long before we go off the cliff.
Ahead of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, marked on November 2, Unesco noted that the “majority of journalists killed in 2016 (94 per cent) were local journalists, reporting local stories. Half of the killings (50 per cent) occurred in countries where there was no armed conflict, compared to 47 per cent in 2015”.
Make of that global statistic what you may. But if you want to join a social media campaign for safe journalism, check out #MyFightAgainstImpunity.
Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.