Minimising harm for journalists should be a critical part of policy

Tuesday May 04 2021
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Emilly C. Maractho

By Emilly C. Maractho

This year’s World Press Freedom Day was celebrated around the theme, ‘information as a public good’. It comes at a time when a sense of the public good is getting lost. Information is often in the hands of the public and citizen journalists are taking matters in their hands. 

Our 1995 Constitution provides for access to information and an operational law in the Freedom of Information Act, 2005. The provision for public broadcasting in the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation Act, 2005 completes the circle by providing for an entity that is legally mandated to broadcast with the public interest at heart.

Having an enabling regulation and supportive institutional infrastructure alone is not enough. Practice tends to differ significantly from what the regulations say.  

 As journalism in Uganda gets professionalised out of the need for self-regulation from the industry, with the rise of many professionally grounded entities like the Editor’s Guild, Uganda Media Sector Working Group, and National Association of Broadcasters pushing for ethical practice, private individuals’ intent on using communication spaces for causing harm are also getting smart and moving in an opposite direction. Very often, their misdeeds are blamed on journalism, because the public can hardly tell the difference. 

For example, while journalists will, if they know what they are doing, respect the privacy of individuals and weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information except where an overriding public need can justify intrusion into someone’s privacy, those seeking to harm such individuals have no duty of care, and go out of their way to cover their tracks while causing harm.

There are two main challenges of regulation today, one is to be able to tell the difference between those using communication platforms to commit crime or cause harm and journalists seeking the truth and reporting it. The second is the failure to cultivate a meaningful balance between regulation to minimise harm to the public or journalists and the facilitation of media freedom without broadly punishing journalism. 

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In the case of the first challenge, while there are mechanisms to deal with criminals, sometimes all of journalism and media practice is criminalised in the process. The beating of journalists, causing them serious harm remains unacceptable in a democratic society, regardless of the quality of that democracy. If there are journalists who out of professional disorder or sheer ill intent commit some crimes, they should face the law like all other citizens in a fair manner, and let the practice of journalism thrive. As Covid-19 has shown, the men and women of words spoken or written, remain relevant to society. Even government admitted that in the lockdown measures. 

In the case of the second challenge, minimising harm for journalists should be a critical part of the wider communication policy that in turn advances freedom of expression, including that of the media. As we also celebrate the Windhoek declaration of 1991, we are aware that the media communication landscape has changed tremendously, but information remains a public good. Our duty is to see that we provide an environment that protects both the public and journalists. 

The news about the shooting to death of a Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) Journalist, Robert Kagolo (RIP) on April 29, was saddening. Every time one of these things happen, it touches not just the family of the person who has lost their loved one, but all who realise in disbelief that a professional colleague has been put to silence.  Very often, despite the reasons for such crime, it is the ever present shadow of ‘your work could have been the reason for your death’, that has the most chilling effect on journalists. It is that shadow regulation needs to make unnecessary. There is need to have meaningful conversations that inform our national communication policy. These in turn should facilitate rather than frustrate access to information and treat it as a public good. 

Emilly Comfort Maractho, PhD, is a senior lecturer & head of Journalism and Media Studies Faculty of Journalism, Media and Communication at Uganda Christian University.

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