Journalism vs national security vs dead heroes

Author: Odoobo C. Bichachi is the Nation Media Group (NMG)-Uganda public editor. PHOTO/FILE.

What you need to know:

As editors in totalitarian countries in Africa, Latin America, etc have leant, there are many ways of putting out “sensitive” security stories without playing dead hero.

The conflict between State and media during times of war and insecurity always boils down to accusations by the former that reckless reporting is endangering national security, or conversely, the latter accusing government of unnecessarily withholding information from the public.

We have heard these accusations in Uganda, particularly during the drawn-out 20-years insurgency in the north that pitted the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) against the government forces in the 1990s to early 2000s. But it is not just a Uganda problem born out of our democracy deficiencies, or Africa’s problem arising out of our dictatorial governments; it is an international problem as well that always rears its head between the State and media in times of conflict. The State is almost always trying to hide information while journalist are always sniffing around looking for the hidden information. The former uses the law and brute force to control the information flow while the latter uses instinct and sources to access the information.

So, can journalism through its reporting endanger national security? Yes it can, but not always! Is the State right whenever it waves “breech of national security” at the media? Sometimes, but not always!

How then can a journalist, particularly an editor who is the gatekeeper know where to draw the line? Look at Section 37 of the Penal Code that the State will pull-out, and be sure one is not in breech or can wiggle out. It reads;

37. Publication of information prejudicial to security

(1) A person who publishes or causes to be published in a book, newspaper, magazine, article or any other printed matter, information regarding military operations, strategies, troop location or movement, location of military supplies or equipment of the armed forces or of the enemy, which publication is likely to—

(a) endanger the safety of any military installations, equipment or supplies or of the members of the armed forces of Uganda;

(b) assist the enemy in its operations; or

(c) disrupt public order and security,

commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years.

(2) For the purposes of this section, “enemy” includes a person or group of persons engaged in waging war or war-like activities against the Republic of Uganda.

(3) A person shall not be prosecuted for an offence under this section without the written consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. I have seen over my many years in journalism stories perilously close to this. I have also seen government officials and agencies baselessly accuse the media of endangering national security.

Has this law been applied on the media in Uganda? Yes, many times, and Daily Monitor was been a victim when it was shut down in October 2002; accused of publishing false news that a UPDF chopper had crashed in the north while fighting LRA rebels, which story was likely to prejudice national security and boost the LRA.  Its editors were charged in court.

Daily Monitor, however, got off the hook because court found that the word “likely” in the Penal Code was speculative; court could not speculate on the impact of a story on security.

Red Pepper is perhaps the latest victim of this after it was shut down in November 2011 and its directors and editors charged for publication of information prejudicial to national security, among others. Red Pepper had alleged that Uganda planned to militarily overthrow Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame.

The matter remains in court and Red Pepper never recovered from this closure.

From the Daily Monitor chopper case, it is clear that an independent judiciary can safeguard the media from being run over by the State using this law, even though this may not stop government from pulling it out every now and then to rein in errant media, as we saw in Red Pepper’s case. It is therefore important for editors to be level-headed while covering issues regarding national security not so much that they are “likely” to endanger the country’s security but that they could give the State the much-needed excuse to get them for all the other “crimes” they couldn’t – like it happened with Red Pepper. Unless, of course, one can trust the judiciary to exercise independence in interpreting the word “likely”.

So should the stories die? No! As editors in totalitarian countries in Africa, Latin America, etc have leant, there are many ways of putting out “sensitive” security stories without playing dead hero.   Still, there are no guarantees.

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