Media critical in nation building - minister

Friday May 31 2013

Ms Namayanja says press freedom is not absolute

Ms Namayanja says press freedom is not absolute. PHOTO BY GEOFFREY SSERUYANGE 

By Yasiin Mugerwa

You are a lawyer by profession and your predecessor was a journalist yet the President has appointed you to the Information docket, aren’t you misplaced?
I may not have a media background but I am a politician and politics is done in the media. Therefore, the issue of being misplaced does not arise. In any case, I have been around for some time and I know what goes on, in and outside the government. I thank my predecessor [Mary Karooro Okurut). She is a media-related person and has done a commendable job. She has left in place a Government Communication Strategy.

What is your plan for the media industry?

To me, when I talk about the media industry, it’s about having a good working relationship with the media because the media play a vital role in nation building. I also want to ensure that there is communication within the government and inter-connectedness. We must be able to know what is happening within ministries, government agencies and in local governments. I will ensure that I use all the available media, including social networks like Facebook and Twitter to make the government visible.
Moving forward, we need to inform the people about government policies and programmes. There should not be any information gap . I will be available for journalists and the people of Uganda. We are just going to close the gaps and ensure that we get the feedback from the people.
Most importantly, I want to improve the relationship between the government and the media because we are partners in development. Reckless and intrusive journalism damages public confidence very quickly and kills nations. Therefore, we need to develop a system of effective self-regulation – based on an agreed code of ethics and a mechanism to be able to respond to complaints through the Media Council.

You are coming at a time when the relationship between the media and the government is at its lowest because of the closure of two newspapers and two radio stations. What is your general view of press freedom?
I want to say from the onset that press freedom is not absolute. Press freedom must not injure the freedom of others and even the national security. And we are not saying the media should write only good things about the government. What we are asking for is accurate and balanced reporting and mutual responsibility.
The government must be responsible for its actions and the media must also take responsibility. The media plays a key role in either building or destroying a nation.
The media play an enormously important role in the protection of human rights. They expose human rights violations and offer an arena for different voices to be heard in public discourse. However, the power of the media can also be misused to the extent that the very functioning of democracy is threatened.
It’s on record that in Rwanda, the media fuelled the 1994 genocide where an estimated 800,000 people were killed and in Kenya, one of the indictees of the 2007 post-election violence is a media personality.

But do you [government] have to close independent newspapers and radio stations?
Asking the Daily Monitor and the Red Pepper to halt operations because of a misunderstanding does not mean that the government does not respect media freedom. The government cannot suppress the media in any way because the NRM government believes in press freedom and democracy but we want balanced, objective and factual reporting. All media houses, including the Daily Monitor must conform to the rules and ensure that they implement their editorial policies. The government needs the media and the media needs the government, we need each other.
It’s a symbiotic relationship. This is why we are calling for self-regulation.
As minister for Information, I am going to ensure that we work with media owners and journalists to strengthen the Media Council to help us check on excesses before they degenerate into a crisis.

What are some of the challenges you expect?
Even Luweero Triangle ministry had challenges. Every docket has its challenges but once we have a mutual relationship between the government and the media, the country will certainly move forward in peace. We are not saying you should only talk about good things, in fact when you only talk good, that means you’re not even checking the government excesses. For instance, there are sessional stories that some time infringe on the right to privacy of others but the media should strengthen its gate-keeping function by conforming to their editorial policies.
We want to ensure that journalists continue to enjoy press freedom and at the same time respect the boundaries provided for under the Constitution and other relevant laws.
Possibly, the other challenge is to ensure that we bridge the gap between the people and the government, so that we can improve service delivery. Certainly, regular interface dialoguing and creating a system where issues can be resolved is the way forward.

What does your appointment mean to women and young people in the politics of this country?
I have replaced a woman, but in the region, we are doing well as far as women representation is concerned. In Cabinet, we are talking about 30 per cent representation and the young people have been given the opportunity to serve in key government positions. We have a Government Chief Whip who is below 40, the Minister for Presidency, Education Minister, the Minister without Portfolio, the Junior Minister for lands and others. We have come through the structures. I have been in the youth councils, I have been a youth MP, a minister of state and now I have been appointed a full minister. You realise that there is a deliberate effort by the government to groom us for leadership and to train us for such responsibilities. I am sure there will never be a vacuum even if our elders leave office.

Let’s face it; maintaining personal integrity and accountability has been a challenge for many of your colleagues, including senior ministers. How have you been able to avoid the endless corruption scandals associated with your colleagues?
It’s the government’s deliberate effort to fight corruption and I espouse this principle. At the end of the day it’s about personal beliefs, personal principle.
I grew up in a typical peasant family but that is rich in morals. I am an SDA by religion and I really espouse religious principles. I would feel very bad to be associated with any corruption issue and I thank God that this is my 12th year in Parliament and second year as a minister but God has guided me through.
Some of us did not come to government to get rich. It’s about service delivery. God has put us in these leadership positions to serve people and we must stamp out corruption because it is satanic.
I am happy that President Museveni is walking the talk in the fight against corruption and Parliament is also doing its part. It was the President who ordered for forensic audits in the scandals the media has been highlighting. For instance, the Chogm expenditures, the ‘ghost’ pensioners in Public Service ministry, Office of the Prime Minister and these reports were sent to the Committee of Parliament chaired by the Opposition.