What you need to know:
- Finally, what should the government do when some idiot sitting in a café in Cambodia doctors an image from say Sierra Leone and sends it around on social media claiming it is from Kasese?
- Do you send a team of assassins to neutralise him?
- Shut down the Internet so that people do not see the photo?
- Pass a law to make it illegal to share the photo?
The government plans to introduce amendments to current media law in response to what senior officials see as unfair or alarmist reportage of the Kasese incidents.
This newspaper reported that President Museveni urged MPs to support the proposed amendments, expected as soon as the House reconvenes next year, and that the request was met with applause all-around.
We should all be worried.
The MPs were always going to support efforts to roll back media freedom; they’ve been frothing at the mouth since revelations were made about their fat-cat perks as well as their illegal attempt to evade taxes on allowances that the rest of us all pay.
There has been, to the best of my knowledge, no impartial and professional review of media coverage of the Kasese incidents. Thus if such a review exists it is probably coloured by the self-interest of the Executive; if no such review exists then we run the risk of prescribing medicine without diagnosis.
Some of the controversy from the Kasese incidents revolved around the real death toll, the chronology of events as well as the provenance of the film footage and some rather troubling photographs said to be from the attack. These are complex and overlapping issues that can’t be cured by the simple waving of a legislative wand. However let us, for arguments’ sake, oversimplify them and divide them into two distinct problems of accuracy and motive.
The pursuit of accuracy is at the heart of any decent media operation, but it can be a moving target, such as when two government agencies give entirely different figures of the dead and injured, or when journalists independently obtain different figures.
The market best regulates accuracy, not by law. Audiences will abandon outlets that are often inaccurate and flock to those that are, weeding the industry of unprofessional outfits.
Decent outfits will occasionally get it wrong – journalists, after all, publish their mistakes while doctors bury theirs – but they will correct it and continue to seek, in the words of the New York Times, the best obtainable version of the truth.
For a long time governments, including our own, punished such mistakes under the law against publication of false news. Justice Joseph Mulenga’s judgment in the Supreme Court ruling that struck down that law would make good holiday reading for legislators thinking about bringing another stillborn baby into the world.
This brings us to motive, especially in a post-truth world of fake news websites, social media and so on. The low cost of entry and the proliferation of smart phones means that anyone today can become a publisher of information, on a multiplicity of platforms.
As we saw in the recent US election, some people abuse that power to deliberately distort and publish false or doctored information. The same anonymity that allows them to publish makes it hard to find them or hold them accountable when they break good law, such as defamation.
The solution to this isn’t to create more laws or to throw more money at the Uganda Police Force’s department of media offences (as an aside, does anyone know if the UPF has similarly dedicated departments to deal with burglary, car break-ins and other such prevalent crimes?).
There are three solutions, in my view. First, the government should itself respect the law: If you don’t shoot unarmed citizens or torture them while in custody you will have nothing to fear from the media.
Second, trying to ban false news is like the proposal, made a few years ago, to ban dust from Kampala City! It makes more sense to compete in the public marketplace of news and ideas, finding false news and dousing it in a layer of the truth until it crumbles.
Finally, what should the government do when some idiot sitting in a café in Cambodia doctors an image from say Sierra Leone and sends it around on social media claiming it is from Kasese?
Do you send a team of assassins to neutralise him? Shut down the Internet so that people do not see the photo? Pass a law to make it illegal to share the photo?
Punishing mainstream media with offices and known editors (who are the real targets of this renewed legislative over-zealousness) drives information – true and untrue – underground. If one and two above fail sometimes the best thing to do in this post-truth world is to do nothing.
Have yourselves a lazy, do-nothing Xmas.
Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi. [email protected] &Twitter: @Kalinaki