I write this note on May 3. It is World Press Freedom Day 2021. This is a special one, for we celebrate 30years since the UNESCO Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press.
Most countries, including Uganda, embraced and endorsed this declaration as part of a fundamental agenda for good governance and progress. Like many international declarations, to which Uganda is signatory, this one gathers dust in some forgotten file, its contents regularly mocked by the very rulers whose delegates appended signatures to the agreement.
Press freedom in Uganda continues its residence on the wish list of journalists and true patriots, even as the rulers hammer away at it with a vigour that surpasses that of the “buffoon regimes” they overthrew decades ago. We are told that the proliferation of broadcast, electronic and print media, complete with commentaries like mine, represents a “free press.” This is one of the great deceptions in the land. The blood of journalists and the shrinking bank accounts of media houses that have attempted to exercise true freedom tell a different story.
The theme of the World Press Freedom Day this year is “Information as a public good.” Very appropriate and urgent in these days of misinformation and disinformation as a virulent public nuisance. What with the unregulated Internet which is one massive marketplace where rubbish competes with verifiable facts! Anyone with a computer issues whatever their mind fancies, confident of reception and propagation by a very gullible public.
Perhaps even more consequential is the attempt by the newsmakers to be the news reporters. The autocrats in state houses and their courtiers use cash and cane to control the gathering and dissemination of information. They consider ethically sound journalism to be a nuisance that must be neutered.
Some journalists, burdened with the corrupt traditions of their society, succumb to the invitation to join the feast of national pillage in exchange for cash and titles. They are propagandists and titled liars on behalf of their retainers. They have no qualms about manufacturing lies about opponents with a view to destroying reputations and fortunes.
One understands, of course, the very hostile environment in which most Ugandan journalists operate. The threat of prison, loss of livelihood and even death encourages many to impose self-censorship. However, other journalists, hopefully the majority, who maintain fidelity to their professional standards and ethics become targets for harassment, torture and even death at the hands of armed state agents.
A false narrative, paraded by the rulers, is that journalists who report events as they happen undermine the country’s image. Such deception is founded on the claim that the story-teller, not the playwright and actors, is the creator of the play.
They want you to believe that violence against civilians by armed men in state uniforms is not the problem. The journalists who report the crime are the criminals who must be silenced and punished. The thieves in high places who steal public funds through creative budgeting, obscene cash awards to themselves and outright dipping into the treasury are patriotic cadres of the revolution.
The problem is the investigative journalist who exposes what Susan Githuku-Wakhungu, my esteemed Kenyan friend, has called Grabiosis Africanopathis. This malady, more virulent and lethal than Covid-19, is at the core of the ideology of the rulers of Uganda and similar countries that continue to spin their wheels even as their people sink deeper and deeper into massive debt and maldevelopment.
These rulers worry about their regime’s image, especially among their patrons in the world’s major capitals. They use blackmail to accuse journalists of scandalising their countries. The fact, of course, is that the stories of violence, greed, corruption, repression, stolen elections, waste and criminally irresponsible environmental degradation are created by the corrupt rulers and irresponsible citizens, not the journalists who document and report them.
Uganda has lately had its share of bad news coverage in the international press. The predictable response by the rulers in Kampala falls flat when one considers that certain African countries, such as Botswana, Mauritius and Namibia, rarely make international headlines and commentary.
As I wrote more than a decade ago, these countries have shortcomings and major challenges of course, but their leaders and citizens are crafting a positive script that keeps them out of the international limelight. For starters, these countries are seriously democratising and seem to be committed to upholding human rights and good governance. Uganda can only join this list if its citizens and rulers embrace the option of genuine democracy and transparent good governance, instead of pursuing the destructive paths that have undermined its opportunities and reputation.
Now, there is a legitimate complaint often heard from Uganda’s rulers, their courtiers and many citizens that the good things happening in our country do not get reported in the international press.
One possible explanation for the disinterest in good news may be that these things are taken for granted. A government is not expected to kill or steal from its people. When this happens, the international public is interested to know. On the other hand, not killing Ugandans is not news. Likewise, investment in national infrastructure and social services are basic requirements of any government. They do not attract the interest of the general reader – at home and abroad.
Instead of resenting those who reveal our dirt to the rest of the world, we should become champions of good, and join forces with those who seek a just society. Rulers who are allergic to a bad press in the foreign lands have the opportunity to change the image of their governments by adopting democracy, good governance and protection of human rights as their signature.
Uganda’s rulers have it in their means to change the script, not by shooting the messenger, but through creating a positive message. Their actions tell the story.
Mulera is a medical doctor.