Why MPs will lose war against media

Sunday March 18 2012

By Yasiin Mugerwa

Information is the lifeblood of a democracy. Without access to information about government policies and programmes, citizens and parliamentarians cannot make informed decisions while incompetent governments can be hidden under a cloak of secrecy.

Not long ago, I advised Members of Parliament to always look in the mirror before judging others. In the same article, I reminded our legislators how Jesus (prophet Isa) spoke candidly against people who, time-and-again, judge others when they are even worse. I was not only referring to those legislators who pack their vehicles in the pedestrian walk-ways near the National Theater, but all MPs to lead by example.

So much has happened in Parliament this week after I wrote last week advising the Deputy Speaker, Mr Jacob Oulanyah, to explain his ruling on the embattled Bank of Uganda Governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile. This week he indeed showed up with an exciting statement on the Floor. Right from the onset, it was apparent that Mr Oulanyah had come to quarrel.

He blamed the media and members. Mr Oulanyah said: “How can you call your Speaker a symbol of disgrace?” He reminded members that parliamentary practice is premised on courtesy and mutual respect. But members also asked him to accept that he made a mistake.

Incensed Oulanyah
He was unmistakably incensed, uncharacteristic of a Speaker. But that is not an issue; in any case we are all human. To cut this story short, in his emotional statement to the House, Mr Oulanyah said he used experience and precedence to inform his ruling on Mutebile. He also advised the aggrieved members to invoke Rule 73 if they want Parliament to revisit his ruling.

Mr Oulanyah took issue with members who criticised him for taking a decision on Mutebile without quorum. But even as he defended his decision, blunt members like the Leader of Opposition, Mr Nandala Mafabi, and Aruu County MP Odonga Otto put it to him that as a leader, he shouldn’t exhibit anger; instead he should exhibit fairness and patience. In the end, Mr Oulanyah closed the chapter.

Incidentally, in all this drama, some unserious lawmakers sought to fix the media. In fact, this explains why, when Fox Odoi, the chairperson of the Rules Committee, proposed that the Rules of Procedure be amended to allow journalists access the chamber with their working tools, MPs like Bakka Mugabi, Raphael Magyezi and Adolf Mwesige protested as if this suggestion was about inviting terrorists. The same group worked so hard to ensure that the Appointments Committee is not open to the media and the general public. In the end, another catastrophic decision was made by Parliament to deny Ugandans the benefits of an open vetting system.

MP Bakka advanced pedestrian arguments that allowing journalists to use recorders, ipads and cameras in the chamber would disclose members with “torn socks”, those with “small legs” and those who “sleep on duty”. Bakka said: “We need a free environment. The press has caused [us] enough damage already. We cannot be over monitored.” Another anti-media fanatic, Mr Mwesige, peddled lies that allowing electronic gadgets in the chamber would put the security of the members at risk. If so, then, what is the relevance of having security at Parliament?

Wrong report
Then, there was Ms Olivia Kabaale Kwagala (Iganga) who claimed that she had just been to the House of Commons in the UK, where they limit electronic devices to the chambers. Her argument was funny in a sense that instead of making a point, she sought to fly her own kite in an attempt to prove to the House that she has been to UK in recent times.

However, some of the pro-press freedom members like Abdul Katuntu were quick to remind her that they have been to the House of Commons long before she came to Parliament.
As a matter of fact, it is not true that UK parliament does not allow the use of electronic devices in the chambers. On October 13, the House of Commons voted to allow tweeting and the use of electronic devices during debates, despite claims it could be distracting.On October 13, the House of Commons voted to allow tweeting and the use of electronic devices during debates, despite claims it could be distracting debate.

Having said that, unless public institutions like Parliament are open to public scrutiny and susceptible to public opinion, true democracy cannot flourish, thus no progress.
In this regard, the 9th Parliament, which claims to be fighting corruption, cannot be the same institution whose members are now keen to suffocate the media.

I have argued before that on account of this principle, as part of the global movement towards more open and accountable government, citizens have become increasingly concerned with obtaining access to information particularly on their representatives in Parliament.

In fact, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) to which Uganda is a member, recommends unhindered media access to Parliament and its committees. Similarly, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) to which Uganda is also a part and is hosting its 126th global summit later this month, believes that for a Parliament to be more accountable to the people, proceedings must be physically open to the public. As a final point, MPs have no right to hide behind the Rules of Procedure to introduce new restrictions on access to information other than what is provided for under Article 41 of the 1995 Constitution.

For the record, this Article reads: “Every citizen has a right of access to information in the possession of the State or any other organ or agency of the State except where the release of the information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State or interfere with the right to the privacy of any other person.”