Thursday, October 7, 2010

HRNJ-Uganda Report: Shrinking space for freedom of expression and media freedom ahead of 2011 general elections.

Kampala, 07th/Sept?2010; The Media in Uganda is Under Attack: Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is concern about the declining safety and security environment for journalists in Uganda, and the growing overall threat to freedom of expression in the country.

With the increased reports of killing, beating, arrests, assaults, and threats to journalists while on duty by either the state authorities or public, the space under which the media exercises its fundamental rights and freedoms is increasingly being narrowed. Journalists are messengers. And to infringe on their freedom to operate, is to violate the very principle of freedom of expression as stated in the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, and the Declaration of Human Rights and other international declarations, to which Uganda is a signatory.

We call upon the government of Uganda to safeguard, protect, uphold and ensure that such fundamental rights and freedoms are fully enjoyed, by protecting the agents of this freedom, the media.

We are seeing a dangerous trend which is a threat to the journalism profession.
Growing impunity

In the first six months of this year, 2010, over 30 journalists reported harassment or suffered some kind of abuse at the hand of state organs or media targeting mobs.

The chairman of the Broadcasting Council, Eng Godfrey Mutabazi, arbitrarily closed down five radio stations namely; Central Broadcasting Services (88.8fm and 89.2), Ssuubi fm, Radio Two and radio Sapientia and suspending journalists, in the events of last year’s September 10 protests.

Three stations have since been re-opened; however, none of the radios have been taken to court to justify their closure or re-opening. Out of 18 journalists who were suspended on orders of the Broadcasting Council (BC), only 8 have been reinstated secretly, while the rest continue to suffer BC wrath. However, they have never been charged in court for any wrong doing. However, the one journalist Kalundi Sserumaga, who sought court intervention over his suspension, his case has not been heard.

Eng Mutabazi has also directed a private owned radio Voice of Lango to suspend two presenters (Akena Patrick Ronex and Joe Orech) for hosting Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) president Dr. Olara Otunnu on 12th/April/2010.

Eng. Mutabazi has therefore caused the regulatory body to lose its moral authority of overseeing and promoting the media interests and the IGG should investigate and intervene in his case.

Attacks occurring in the last few months have been particularly disturbing. Paul Kiggundu, a journalist working with Top Radio was killed by a mob in Rakai while on duty. Another journalist Dickson Ssentongo in Mukono met his death on his way home from work. He was working with Seventh Day Adventist church based radio Prime.

Also, a female colleague, Wilbroad Kasujja, a news anchor with Buwama Community Radio, was raped before she was killed. There are many more examples and we are saying; this must stop.

According to research conducted by HRNJ-Uganda, the police and security forces are also implicated in violations to freedom of expression, and have been accused of abusing journalists directly. In the first half of 2010, the police were connected to 12 cases of abuse committed against journalists.

HRNJ-Uganda’s mid-year report also states seven cases where individual members of the public have assaulted journalists; three cases were reported against Para-military groups, two against the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Force (UPDF), 2 cases against the State and one against Regulatory bodies.

A handful of trials

A few people are facing trials over some of these crimes. A policeman Sgt. Mohamed Mundu was charged with assault and malicious damage to property at Buganda road chief magistrate court. He assaulted Yusuf Muziransa, a Daily Monitor photojournalist and damaged his camera. Buganda road court has issued another set of summons against Basajjabalaba Hassan after assaulting Arthur Kintu, a New Vision photojournalist. Also, six people were arrested for the death of Top Radio journalist Paul Kiggundu and charged with murder at Kalisizo magistrate in Rakai district. While these arrests are step in the right direction, they do not go far enough to address the overall state of impunity regarding the assault of journalists in Uganda.

The Sedition law was scrapped by our courts and removed from the law books – this has been a victory for the media fraternity in Uganda. However, sedition still tops the list of charges used against journalists in Uganda, with 8 journalists currently charged. Also, 7 journalists are faced with charges of criminal defamation, five have been charged for promoting sectarianism, there are 3 cases for publishing false news, 2 each for libel, forgery and uttering false documents and one journalist has been charged with treason.

International appeal

In September 2010, thirty-one IFEX members and global partners wrote to the President of Uganda Yoweri Kaguta Museveni demanding retraction of the proposed amendment to Press and Journalists Act. No action has been taken, yet.

In another letter the same month, IFEX members and four other organizations called on the government to withdraw the proposed amendment and revise other existing laws related to free expression. The proposed amendment to the Press and Journalist Act is due to be presented to the Parliament of Uganda in the near future.

If passed, the law would restrict freedom of expression in Uganda and impede the ability of journalists and media outlets to execute their duties because it imposes unnecessarily registration and licensing requirements on the media.

We all need freedom of expression

The right to freedom of the press and access to information in the Constitution is an important recognition of the importance of the free media and freedom of expression in a democracy. It is only a free media that can scrutinize public affairs, encourage a robust public debate, and expose corruption and other forms of malfeasance. The proposed Bill puts these functions on the line.

We call upon the government and the public to remember that it is the free media that would protect them from the violators of human rights through exposing them, and an attack on them, or anything that restricts the environment in which they operate, is a not only to shoot the messenger but also, denies society the freedom of information.

Reports by human rights organizations including Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, among others, show that there is a worrying decline in press freedom in Uganda over the past five years, accompanied by a rise in self-censorship and attacks on journalists.

Looking ahead

The killing, assault, beating, harassment, and threats to journalists threaten the safety and security of the media practitioners in the run up to, during and after the 2011 general elections.

The government and public therefore, should be at the forefront of protecting and promoting the essential human rights of freedom of expression by ensuring journalists are able to freely practice their profession and document history. It is only a free media that can scrutinize public affairs, encourage a robust public debate, and expose corruption.

We therefore recommend that;

Police and other security agencies guarantee to the world that journalists and media houses will operate freely towards, during and after 2011 general election.

The coordinator of security agencies and inspector general of police should punish all errant officers who have harassed and attacked journalists, and release reports of all cases that have been investigated by police.

HRNJ-Uganda calls upon the government to allow the media to operate freely without interference and end physical attacks and intimidation, and to punish individual perpetrators of violence against the media.

We also demand that the Broadcasting Council Chairman Eng. Godfrey Mutabazi resigns in the interest of the freedom of expression and media freedom ahead of the general elections in Uganda

We call upon the office of Inspector General of Government to investigate and punish him.

That Parliament should quickly pass the ‘Torture bill’ which has been shelved for many years as a way of ending impunity to individual perpetrators of violence against journalists and other citizens.

That the public appreciate the role of the media and act as journalists’ source of protection

And lastly, Parliament should release the police report arising out of the Commission of inquiry on police brutality which was headed by Hon. Peter Nyombi to facilitate the long-awaited amendment process of Uganda police act and the penal code.

For more information contact;
Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda)
Kivebulaya Road, Mengo- Bulange, Kampala Opp. St. Marcelino Preparatory School
Tel: +256-414-272934 /+256-414-667627 / +256-701-810079
Toll Free helpline: 0800144155
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