Kadaga under fire for ‘ban’ on journalists

The Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Mr Wafula Oguttu, addresses journalists at his office in Kampala yesterday. PHOTO BY GEOFFREY SSERUYANGE

What you need to know:

Attack on press freedom. Parliamentary Commission’s decision to stop 53 senior journalists from covering Parliament activities attracts the wrath of lawmakers, lawyers and media experts, who describe the move as curtailing media freedom.

PARLIAMENT. Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah yesterday said he was not party to a decision to stop 53 senior journalists from covering the House as the authorities struggled to explain away what some legislators called “an attack on press freedom”.
The decision was received with shock in newsrooms around the country as lawmakers calling themselves “friends of media”, quickly accused the Parliamentary Commission and the Speaker’s office of interference in the running of media houses.
Speaker Kadaga chairs the Parliamentary Commission and in her absence, Mr Oulanyah. Ms Kadaga was reported away in New York, USA, for official duty.
Lawyers around town denounced the directive as unconstitutional.
With a sense of consternation sweeping through Parliament, Mr Felix Okot Ogong (Dokolo) and Fred Ebil (Kole) raised the issue as a matter of national importance when the plenary opened. Other lawmakers described the decision as bizarre and insisted that Parliament should be the last institution to curtail press freedom.
Mr Oulanyah, who chaired the House yesterday, moved to stem the tide of condemnation, promising to review the matter in the wake of demands that Speaker Rebecca Kadaga reverses the directive.
“The Clerk to Parliament is an institution. What I have said here as Speaker, we will go back and look at it again and then see what can be done because I was not part of the meeting that came to that decision. Now that the matter has been drawn to my attention, we will deal with it,” Mr Oulanyah said.
Uganda Parliamentary Press Association General Secretary Moses Kajangu described the move to throw out senior journalists from Parliament as outlandish.
The Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence, Dr Peter Mwesige, said: “I think this is high-handed. If the Parliamentary Commission has concluded that longevity in reporting Parliament is a problem for the quality of coverage (which doesn’t make much sense at all at face value) they should have discussed the issue with the parliamentary reporters and media houses first.”
“I don’t think the blanket ban they are trying to impose on reporters who have covered Parliament for more than five years will lead to better coverage (in terms of quality). If anything, I would expect that reporters with more experience have gathered more knowledge of how Parliament works and better skills at reporting on the institution,” Dr Mwesige said.
Former Parliament Rules Committee Chairperson Fox Odoi reminded the authorities that “newspapers back the independence of Parliament and the senior journalists they are targeting help to complete the equation”.
“The authorities in the House cannot be the ones to decide who covers Parliament; this is an internal matter. The independence of the media and media freedom should be respected. What kind of nonsense is this?” Mr Odoi asked.

The letter
On March 9, the Clerk to Parliament, Ms Jane Kibirige, wrote to news editors a letter titled: ‘Replacement of Parliamentary Reporters’, stating: “The purpose of this letter is to inform you that the Parliamentary Commission has in the interest of balanced media coverage of Parliament, made a decision to the effect that all reporters who have been covering Parliament for more than five years be replaced with effect from May 1, 2015”.
“This is therefore to request, that you arrange for a replacement for all parliamentary reporters from your organisation, who have been covering Parliament since year 2009.”
Ms Kibirige is the secretary to the commission, but Mr Reagan Okumu, a commissioner in charge of administration, yesterday denounced the letter.
“What I don’t understand is why the Parliamentary Commission got involved in press administration. These matters are normally handled by the PR office, not directly by the commission. We have not tabled anything like this in the commission, and don’t think this came from the commission,” Mr Okumu said.
He added: “As a commission, we had planned to meet the journalists as we met the Parliament staff to understand how they work and the challenges they face. We are also going to meet the police. In any case, when we met editors at the breakfast meeting, we agreed that media houses send senior reporters who understand the rules of procedure to cover Parliament.”
Ms Alice Alaso (Serere Woman), said: “I find the move to throw out journalists with a long experience very retrogressive. By going that route Parliament wants to manage media houses. Worse still it is an attempt to impose a standard of a five-year term on the press when it does not apply to members or a term limit which House removed at the cost of Shs5m. I fear this will create room for operatives without any journalistic experience to masquerade as new journalists.”
Mr Crispy Kaheru, the director of Citizen Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, said: “Kadaga should strongly consider asking the Clerk to withdraw that communication. The deployment of which media personnel to cover aspects of public life for whatever period of time must be the preserve of media houses themselves. It must never be a legitimate function of the State to determine which journalists or how long they can cover national processes.”
City lawyer Isaac Kimeze said: “Parliament is acceptable to all, particularly journalists who bring news to the wider public. Any attempts by the Speaker, or any person with authority, to kick out a stranger, let alone the journalists, without giving them a fair hearing violates many constitutional norms.”
The Clerk was reported out of the country, but Ms Helen Kawesa, the acting director of communications and public affairs, said: “The commission wants balanced reporting because there is lack of balance in some areas. Those who made the decision don’t see the balance.”
Ms Kawesa couldn’t explain why some commissioners have disowned the meeting where the decision was taken.
The Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Mr Oguttu yesterday said he was not aware of when the decision was taken.

Theodore Ssekikubo, Lwemiyaga County MP: “What a bizarre decision! The Clerk to Parliament must explain where she got such funny ideas. Parliament should be the last public body to attack the free press. Parliaments all over the world are covered by experienced journalists, not novices, because they understand the rules of procedure and the politics better.”

Cissy Kagaba, Anti-corruption Coalition Uganda boss: “If the chasing away of journalists is targeting critical reporters, that will be unfortunate. And if such machinations in the House seek to undermine accountability and is done in bad faith so as to bring journalists who are inclined to the commission,...journalists should stand up against this.”

Gerald Karuhanga, Western Youth MP: “We cannot allow individuals to kill the press. That’s unacceptable, as a member of Parliamentary Forum on Media, we are going to study the Clerk’s letter and issue a statement to that effect. We condemn any attempts to muzzle the press at Parliament and we call upon the authorities in Parliament to rescind such a ridiculous idea.”