On Tuesday, the National Association of Broadcasters, NAB, an umbrella body of radio and television station executives, met with the Uganda Communications Commission, UCC, the industry regulator.
The meeting followed a letter from UCC to 13 radio and television stations alleging that their coverage on April 29, a day on which there had been disturbances involving the police and supporters of singer-MP Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, had breached the minimum broadcast standards.
In the letter, UCC asked for recordings of the day’s coverage as well as the suspension of three senior newsroom editors in each of the 13 stations on duty that day – a total of 39 journalists. This latter directive understandably caused angst across newsrooms, which Tuesday’s meeting was meant to resolve.
Despite a lengthy and, at one point rather heated debate, the meeting only achieved semantics: The journalists would not be suspended, but would only be asked to ‘step aside’ to allow investigations to continue.
This, in my view, was not an ideal outcome. Debate on the matter has tended to focus on whether UCC has the legal authority to ask a media house to suspend or sack an editor. This is an important argument, but it is farther down the road.
The primary problem is one of procedure and due process.
UCC’s request for recordings was, one imagines, done in order for them to be reviewed and violations pinpointed. It is hard to reconcile a request for information with a declaration of punitive action against individuals. The horse should always come before the cart.
The correct process, as was argued in vain at the meeting, is for UCC to review the content, point out specific violations, and allow each media house to explain and take corrective action, including suspension of errant journalists.
As surprising as it might sound, it is generally not a good idea to punish people before establishing the facts or giving them a fair hearing. What if you punish the wrong people? This isn’t just hypothetical: One speaker at the meeting whose TV had received the letter, politely pointed out that his station was undergoing a revamp and had sent all journalists home more than a month ago.
They have not had a news bulletin or talk show in that time, no journalist, and no newsroom to speak of; who, exactly were they supposed to suspend – or, to be politically correct, ask to step aside – and why?
What of small stations with one- or two-person newsrooms? Who would be the third ‘suspendee’ and how would they cover the news in the ensuing vacuum?
This column does not bring these industry matters into the public domain to embarrass or undermine UCC’s regulatory authority. Rather, it does so for two reasons: First, that as a statutory creature, UCC should act within the law, including in keeping with long-established doctrines like ensuring a fair hearing.
The easiest and quickest way to address this is to bring to life the communications tribunal established by the UCC Act. The tribunal will offer the media industry a rope to haul itself out of the current legal quagmire in which the UCC is the detective, the arresting officer, the prosecutor, the judge and the executioner. Our courts take a dim view of legalities built on illegalities.
Secondly, and more importantly, debate about media industry regulation needs to have more voices (journalists have agency and should weigh in, as should citizens on whose behalf the regulators act), be more rigorous, and be anchored on a framework of democratic governance.
The delicate balancing act of safeguarding the public interest or protecting national security while promoting the right to access to information and the freedom of expression and the media is too important to be left to just media owners and industry regulators.
Journalists are not above the law. Neither is journalism. But as Justice Joseph Mulenga (RIP) famously argued, restrictions to the freedom of expression and the media must be demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society. Following due process and the rule of law is a good place to start.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org