Uganda continues to be rated very low in regard to freedom of expression, media rights - their safety and protection. According to Reporters without Borders, Uganda dropped on the global press freedom index from the 117th position in 2018 to 125th in 2019. They noted that any criticism of the authorities can result in journalists being beaten, abducted or deprived of their equipment with impunity.
The recent events that have seen journalist tortured while in their line of duty and the threats from the media regulators, leaves one wondering how safe it is for one to practice journalism in Uganda today. Journalist engaged in issues of democracy, accountability and transparency find themselves at the point of political intolerance.
Beating and torturing journalists serves the purpose of scaring them off and eventually leading to self-censorship in fear of being shut down. Journalists have been associated with the work that they come to cover and unfortunately, they have been branded as part of the Opposition and, therefore seen as the enemy.
Many media houses have in the past been shut down and censored for being critical of the actions of the ruling government. It should be noted, that this curtails the public’s access to information and closes up the civic space thus leaving no room for civic engagement and empowerment.
In August 2018 during the “Free Bobi Wine” protests, James Akena, a journalist with Reuters was beaten by the Uganda Peoples Defence Force as he raised his hands in surrender. He suffered deep cuts to his head and injuries on his hands and fingers for which he was hospitalised and incapacitated.
The safety of journalist is very critical and important for any democracy in the world, but it is often not treated with the utmost importance that it deserves. The media plays a crucial role in standing up for the human rights of others by informing, documenting, reporting, monitoring electoral processes, and advocating for the respect of rights for all.
Journalists are frontline human rights defenders and guaranteeing their safety in the coming electoral process is crucial to sustaining decorum and opening up of spaces for dissent, dialogue and civic engagement.
The media is the watchdog of the country. They set the agenda for issues in the country and going into the 2021 General Election, journalist need to be ready to engage independently with the political players. This year precedes the year of political activities and the media should brace itself for a continued shrinking of civic spaces even in their line of duty.
Uganda has a number of laws that restrict freedom of expression, including those of journalists and media houses.
The media finds itself being accused of inciting violence and unlawful assembly, among others. Sometimes when a journalist is arrested in their line of duty, many are directed to delete some footages that the authorities are not comfortable with.
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation rolled out a national coordination mechanism for safety of journalists that seeks to protect journalists. At the beginning of the of the year, the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders, offered a rapid response strategy to help journalists, who are the frontline human rights defenders.
In that was relocation if the need arises, provision of lawyers and medical healthcare. They also shared an emergency hotline that journalists can access as we go into the electoral process this year and in 2021 during the General Elections cycle.
In addition to that, the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders in Uganda noted that journalists equally need to equip themselves with knowledge of their rights so they can be prepared to deal with the eventualities as they unfold.
Ahead of the 2021 electoral cycle, journalists need to equip themselves with knowledge on the laws that govern their work spaces and should continue to stand in solidarity with each other in the event of an attack from security forces.
The mandate falls on all participants in the civic space to push for opening of spaces for critical public reporting and debate on issues of public interest.
For free and fair elections, the government should protect freedom of expression and association. Government should respect and uphold its obligations in accordance to the International Human Rights law and Uganda’s Constitution to protect freedom of speech and the electorates’ right to receive and obtain information. Security and armed forces also need to be held accountable on the crimes committed against journalists and justice be delivered.
It is already evident that the atmosphere for the 2021 General Election is going to be filled with tension, arbitrary arrests and a manipulation of the laws that govern the fourth estate. But it is imperative on the Fourth Estate and the citizenry at large to be aware of what the fundamental rights on freedom of association and speech are and then work together to avoid the possibility of a toxic electoral process.
Ms Nabaye is the resident research associate, Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies.