Media under pressure to silence critical and independent voices

Danish Ambassador. Mogens Pedersen. PHOTO BY RACHEL MABALA

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Repression. It critical for all stakeholders to safeguard the watchdog role of independent journalism in exposing all forms of human rights abuses and inequalities, which undermine the sustainable development agenda, says Mogens Pedersen, the Ambassador of Denmark to Uganda.

Honourable Members of Parliament,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Representatives from Civil Society, Academia and Media Houses,
Ladies and Gentlemen, (all protocols observed)
It is a great pleasure for me to speak on behalf of the EU member states in Uganda, on this occasion when the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ-Uganda) is launching the Press Freedom Index Report for 2017.
This event is taking place just a few days in advance of the World Press Freedom Day, which will be commemorated on May 3, 2018. This year’s global theme as proposed by Unesco is “Keeping power in check: Media, justice and the rule of law”.

This theme is quite relevant to Uganda as it embraces issues of media and the transparency of political processes, the independence of the judicial system and accountability of State institutions towards the public.
The World Press Freedom day is commemorated annually to provide a platform for informing citizens on fundamental issues of press freedom, spotlight critical matters such as threats and violence against journalists, and to remind governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom.

It is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.
In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling upon member states to develop and implement strategies for combating impunity for attacks on journalists and to maintain, a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work without interference.

The UN resolution also calls upon member states to release journalists and media workers who have been arbitrarily arrested or detained. It makes recommendations aimed at ensuring safety of journalists during election periods and that measures to combat terrorism do not unduly hinder the work and safety of journalists. Implementation of this resolution is intended to uphold the fundamental right of freedom of expression, and to ensure that citizens are well informed and able to actively participate in society.
Compared to many countries in the world, Uganda has over the years enjoyed relatively good level of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Freedom House has in 2018, assessed the press in Uganda to have slightly improved from “not free” to “partly free” due to the resilience of the media sector and the willingness of journalists, bloggers, and citizens to voice their opinions, although the political environment remained tightly restricted.
The same year, Uganda was reported to be on a downward trend by Reporters Without Borders in the World Press Freedom Index report which was published a few days ago – moving down five places from previous year to 117 out of 180.

This negative trend corresponds with information given by media houses and organisations in Uganda, who have identified increased pressure in the recent years, on both press freedom and freedom of expression.
According to the HRNJ-U Press Freedom Index Report for Uganda, which is launched today, 113 violations against journalists involving both state and non-state actors were recorded during 2017.
The violations range from assault, denial of access to news scenes, malicious damage of journalists’ equipment, abduction, as well as unlawful arrests and detention.

Some media houses have suffered close downs and in some cases specific programmes that are considered offensive by state agencies were banned.
Increased control of the internet has been prominently used against freedom of expression with unjustified cuts and limitations to use of social media.

This was evident in the 2016 presidential elections and in 2017 during the debate on the Constitutional Amendment Bill.
As development partners we have also noticed numerous actions by security personnel, in particular the police infringing on press freedom and freedom of expression.
Human rights violations have been on the rise since 2017. Unfortunately, many of such violations are never reported and if reported, the cases rarely progress from investigation to prosecution, creating a climate of impunity.

Along with the continued attacks, this has a chilling effect on the willingness and ability of journalists to cover sensitive issues that may be relevant from a human rights and governance perspective.
It is apparent that Ugandan media is currently under continuous pressure to silence critical and independent voices – especially about public officials and government excesses.
This is a clear attempt to intimidate the press and consequently, it has led to self-censorship by media houses and journalists in order to avoid harassment.

It is, therefore, critical for all stakeholders to safeguard the watchdog role of independent journalism in exposing all forms of human rights abuses and inequalities, which undermine the sustainable development agenda.
Freedom of expression is further challenged by an increase in the number of legislation and policy directives that are restrictive and controlling in nature.

These include, among others, the Anti-Terrorism Act (2002), the Computer Misuse Act (2013), the Anti-Pornography Act 2013 and the proposed amendments to the Press and Journalists Act that will have implications for independent journalism in Uganda.
Similarly, the draft ‘communication regulations’ which are underway from Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), raise concerns.
Some of the regulations introduce concepts such as ‘public morality’, which are not clearly defined. This poses a risk of selective interpretation and application by the UCC.
In addition, some of the regulations give the UCC extensive authority to revoke licences and block communication traffic as part of a communication emergency.

These guidelines could potentially be used to restrict freedom of expression depending on how UCC defines the unclear concepts.
The ability of journalists to safely engage in journalism is essential to ensuring public access to information and protecting fundamental freedoms, which the international community has explicitly recognised in Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals as being necessary to promote justice, peaceful and inclusive societies.
We, therefore, urge the respective state agencies to fulfil their obligations to promote universal respect for, and observance and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

All journalists, media professionals and associated personnel should fully enjoy the rights enshrined in international human rights and international humanitarian law while exercising their right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas.
In conclusion, we call upon the respective state agencies to promote media freedom and pluralism by avoiding unwarranted interference with impartial and critical reporting.
The Uganda Police Force and the army should work towards restoring confidence among journalists by punishing the errant security officials implicated in attacking journalists and ensuring the safety and security of journalists rather than traumatising/attacking them.
The Judiciary should exercise its independence and expeditiously handle matters involving journalists to ensure that justice is delivered in a timely manner.

Government should also consider establishing an independent mechanism of investigating and sanctioning the errant police officers rather than leaving the responsibility to the same institution accused of perpetrating the violence against journalists.
It is equally essential for the journalists and media practitioners to be professional in their work, and remain vigilant by working together in ensuring their safety and security.

They should strive to build partnerships among various stakeholders, introducing and harmonising safety mechanisms designed to reduce individual exposure to dangers.
As development partners, we remain committed to support efforts for joint trainings for media and police officers to facilitate better appreciation of each other’s role and work as a means to building professionalism and improved observance of human rights, safety and security of journalists.


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