The Cabinet pronouncement banning live broadcasts of the “defiance campaign” placed the media right at the centre of the fight between President Museveni and Dr Kizza Besigye, prompting reactions from different circles.
The ban was announced yesterday by Information minister Jim Muhwezi, in a high profile press conference that was attended by Attorney General Fredrick Ruhindi and his deputy, Mr Mwesigwa Rukutana. Police boss Gen Kale Kayihura, Uganda Communications Commission boss Godfrey Mutabazi and select media managers especially from television sector also attended the press conference. “I hope the media will defy this ridiculous and unconstitutional ban on free speech and expression,” Dr Peter Mwesige, the executive director of the African Center for Media Excellence, said.
Mr Mwesige said Dr Besigye is free to challenge the declared reelection of President Museveni and “the media have acted as a witness to this contestation and brought the fight to our living rooms. It is up to Ugandans to decide whether to embrace ‘defiance’ or accept ‘no change’”.
“The media are messengers,” Dr Mwesigye said, adding: “They are not the authors of the defiance campaign, which, by the way, is also allowed by our Constitution. At least the court is yet to rule to the contrary.”
The ban primarily targets television and radio live broadcasts, but live reporting in the digital age goes beyond that, with newspapers now also capable of maintaining live feeds on their websites.
The media ban on reporting “defiance campaign” activities, Deputy Attorney General Rukutana said at the press conference, was implied in the order Deputy Chief Justice Steven Kavuma issued restraining Dr Besigye and his Forum for Democratic Change party from engaging in the defiance campaign.
Mr Rukutana’s interpretation regarding the media elicited immediate reactions, with the American Embassy in Kampala twitting Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Article 19 goes: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through media.”
In situations of political volatility, the government has usually turned its guns to the media, with live reporting being the first casualty.
In 2009, three radio stations were switched off air for doing live transmissions of events during the Kayunga riots.
The stations were Buganda Kingdom’s Central Broadcasting Service, Ssuubi FM and the Catholic Church’s Radio Sapientia.
Much earlier before that, there had been an assault on live broadcasting when live public talk shows commonly known as bimeeza were banned in 2002.
“(The Kavuma order) is a restraint to the named respondents in that order, i.e., Forum for Democratic Change and Kizza Besigye. Had the Attorney General intended to seek bar to publication by any other person, his office would have named that person a party. The press should not be manipulated by any office in believing that they are parties to the order by any reference. I also opine that there is nothing wrong with reporting in an acceptable form that a party to an order has defied it. That is news. It is upon the party in whose favour the restraint is made to seek contempt of court relief against the flouting party,” James Nangwala, Monitor lawyer, on whether order concerns media
“You are talking about freedom of the press; can the media go and publish pornography? Can you go and start propagating the views of al-Shabaab? Your freedom as the media is not unlimited. The State has to respond to situations as they come,” Kiryowa Kiwanuka, NRM party lawyer
“We saw this coming when the Minister (of Information) started engineering an amendment to the law in order to shield his pronouncements from Parliamentary scrutiny. What the government was actually targeting is live coverage. There is likely to be increased repression of the media and probably shutting down of media houses but the media need to stay firm,” Robert Sempala, Human Rights Network for Journalists
“The government is being forced to come out without pretences. They know that the majority of the population was very unhappy with the manner in which the election was conducted. That (Justice Steven) Kavuma order, which was ex-parte, is not necessarily relevant to the situation. You cannot issue a blanket prohibition of what is supposed to be someone’s right. You cannot issue an order that people are not supposed to be dissatisfied; that even if they are dissatisfied they cannot express their dissatisfaction. It is clearly unconstitutional. How the dispute will be resolved will have very little to do with the law,” Prof John Jean Barya, Law Lecturer, Makerere University
“The government’s decision to ban media coverage of FDC activities is truly disappointing just days after World Press Freedom Day. Such restrictions violate not just the rights of journalists, but the right of citizens to information. Citizens of Uganda should be able to decide for themselves what information to use to make informed choices about their country. Efforts to restrict the press and people’s access to information are big steps in the wrong direction. If a country’s media is under threat, it’s citizens’ rights are under threat as well,” United States Embassy
“The EU delegation in Kampala wishes to recall that the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.
The EU considers that the right to freedom of opinion and expression includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information. It is a key component of democratic governance and development. People need to be fully informed to be able to form an opinion and participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives. Freedom of information also contributes to better governance as it enhances transparency in public affairs and can be used as a tool to make governments accountable for their actions, in particular when access to information results in the exposure of the violation of fundamental freedoms. For these reasons, the EU deplores the decision to ban media houses in Uganda from reporting on issues of national public interest,” European Union