What you need to know:
- The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York and Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based non-profit which champions press freedom, have both documented serious media rights violations in Uganda, including brutal attacks on journalists.
Tomorrow, journalists around the world will mark World Press Freedom Day. It is an annual event during which professionals working in news and editorial departments of media organisations remind governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom.
“Information as a public good” is this year’s theme. However, in Uganda, harassment, intimidation, persecution of, and physical attacks on, journalists — who disseminate information as a public good — have become the order of the day.
The perpetrators of these acts are security forces who, ironically, are paid by Ugandan taxpayers to protect all Ugandans. Some journalists now have physical disabilities caused by horrific injuries they sustained in the pursuit of stories as security forces beat the living daylights out of them.
The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York and Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based non-profit which champions press freedom, have both documented serious media rights violations in Uganda, including brutal attacks on journalists.
Reporters Without Borders, for example, says “acts of intimidation and violence against reporters are an almost daily occurrence in Uganda and that President Museveni’s re-election in early 2021 was preceded by an especially repressive campaign”. It adds that it logged more than 40 attacks on journalists and media in the final weeks of the election campaign.
The next five years are going to be particularly hard for Ugandan journalists. The current government and the former rebels heading it overstayed their welcome and are now literally forcing themselves on Ugandans. That is why those who campaigned for and voted for Opposition politicians have been attacked, detained in ungazetted places and are facing bogus charges in military courts.
When a government becomes unpopular, it tends to have an awful lot of skeletons in its closet. Today the NRM government finds itself in this situation. There is a great deal to hide, and journalists are supposed to expose it all. How things will pan out on the media landscape in 2021–2026 remains to be seen.
Having said that, there are other serious concerns for journalists as they mark World Press Freedom Day. These have nothing to do with press freedom, but they have a huge impact on how journalists perform their duties. Newsrooms — not only in Uganda but also in the entire East African region and beyond — are grappling with financial impotence triggered by declining revenues.
They operate on shoestring budgets and have had to lay off staff who walk out with severance packages that would make buskers or beggars in some cities burst out in derisive laughter.
Journalists who are still on the payroll earn pittances — basically starvation salaries that get gobbled up by rent, Yaka and what we colloquially call transport in Uganda. Yet these journalists sometimes work on or commission stories involving scandals where the culprits are ready to pay something if journalists back off.
A journalist who is virtually starving and is seeing a bribe being dangled before them to spike a story would have to be a saint to rebuff the bribe. I doubt such journalists exist. Maybe in theory but not in practice.
As things stand, we have a double whammy of shrinking press freedom and trouble in the wallets (or bank accounts) of journalists. The latter is more serious, if you ask me, because it comes dangerously close to being an existential threat.
We need a serious conversation on how journalists can rein in trouble in their wallets and then tackle media rights violations.
Mr Namiti is a journalist and former
Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk
[email protected] @kazbuk