In the wake of last week’s egregious assault of Ugandan journalists by the military, a number of commentators have taken issue with what they consider a parochial reaction by the media fraternity.
These critics have scoffed at what they have taken to be a suggestion that journalists are special. Some of them have argued, rightly so, that no citizen should be beaten or assaulted, especially by those who are supposed to protect them.
But this is a red herring. When the media, human rights defenders, and others emphasise in their reporting on conflict situations violence against or the killing of women and children, for instance, they are certainly not suggesting that it is okay to kill innocent men and adults. Rather, they are emphasising an aberration.
The most vulnerable in society and those that put their lives at great risk in service of the public deserve special protection. The issue is journalists who turned up to cover National Unity Platform Robert Kyagulanyi’s handover of a petition to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Kampala were battered by the military.
This was part of a growing pattern of violence against journalists by members of security agencies or armed forces in Uganda.
It was a big story in Uganda and in the rest of the world because such a brazen attack on journalists, moreover in front of the UN office charged with the promotion and protection of human rights, is considered an aberration and the height of impunity. The widespread condemnation of the assault by fellow journalists should not be construed as a suggestion that beating up other citizens is justified.
All forms of violence against unarmed citizens exercising their rights or performing their dutiesmust be condemned. And indeed, we have seen such condemnation in the past, driven largely by media reporting.
Journalists are not any more special than other citizens, but the work that they do is special. As we were reminded during the lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, journalists were part of a special category of “essential workers”. Again, this is not to suggest that other citizens don’t do special work. They do, but not many of them have been targeted for doing their work.
The fact that the important work that journalists do—informing the public, facilitating public debate, scrutinising the actions of officialdom, and holding power to account—is increasingly making them targets of violence by the police, military, and others makes the case for their special protection.
In December 2013, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed November 2 as the ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’ in General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/163 in commemoration of the assassination of two French journalists in Mali on November 2 that year.
The resolution “condemns unequivocally all attacks and violence against journalists and media workers, such as torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention, as well as intimidation and harassment in both conflict and non-conflict situations”.
It further urges member states (Uganda is one of them, if you need a reminder) “to do their utmost to prevent violence against journalists and media workers, to ensure accountability through the conduct of impartial, speedy and effective investigations into all alleged violence against journalists and media workers falling within their jurisdiction and to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice and ensure that victims have access to appropriate remedies.”
The resolution also “calls upon States to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and withoutundue interference, including by means of: (a) legislative measures; (b) awareness-raising in the judiciary and among law enforcement officers and military personnel, as well as among journalists and in civil society, regarding international human rights and humanitarian law obligations and commitments relating to the safety of journalists; (c) the monitoring and reporting of attacks against journalists; (d) publicly condemning attacks; and (e) dedicating the resources necessary to investigate and prosecute such attacks.”
The safety of journalists affects all citizens. The right to freedom of expression, under which the calls for protection of journalists are anchored, is critical for the enjoyment of all other rights. Journalists are the eyes and ears of society (pardon the cliché).
As Uganda’s Supreme Court has said, “protection of the right to freedom of expression is of great significance to democracy. It is the bedrock of democratic governance. Meaningful participation of the governed in their governance, which is the hallmark of democracy, is only assured through optimal exercise of the freedom of expression. This is as true in the new democracies as it is in the old ones.”
More recently, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said: “If we do not protect journalists, our ability to remain informed and make evidence-based decisions is severely hampered. When journalists cannot do their jobs in safety, we lose an important defence against the pandemic of misinformation and disinformation that has spread online.”
Therefore, the question we should be asking is not whether journalists are special, but what the government is doing to fulfil its international commitments to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work. What measures will the government put inplace to respond to this growing culture of impunity?
According to our monitoring at the African Centre for Media Excellence, more than 40 journalists have been subjected to wanton abuse of their rights in the last four months.
The Ugandan army moved quickly to try and punish those that beat up the journalists at the UN office last week (never mind that the trial was not transparent). But what about the many others who directly targeted journalists in the run-up to the January elections? We cannot allow this impunity to thrive.
Dr Peter G. Mwesige is co-founder and executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence.