By Alice Drito, Commonwealth Journalists Association executive member
Democracy without freedom of expression and media is characteristic of many failed or failing states in Africa. Low priority given to media freedom disconnects the media from good governance and development. Yet in developed nations a vibrant and widely-read press encourages citizens to take part in government and to express their views about things that affect them. Fragile states need to promote a free press for their own good. But, in practice, the media are held under siege.
In Uganda, journalists have become targets of state security operatives. The BBC, the Daily Monitor and other media are being branded as enemies of Uganda. One rights body puts the number of journalists harassed or intimidated by security agents at 55 over six months. Forty-three face charges including sedition and criminal libel.
Ten journalists were reportedly beaten when covering the May 12 return of opposition leader Kizza Besigye from Kenya [where he had gone for treatment of injuries he received when a demonstration was violently dispersed in Kampala last month.]. On May 18 journalists were beaten by security agents at a wetland. It had been encroached by 500 Uganda Peoples Defense Force veterans, who claimed President Museveni authorised them to occupy it.
Handling journalists with an iron fist is a strange way to attempt to tame the media in a civilised society. It differs from methods previously used. These were characterised by switching on and off of air waves, raiding media establishments, arresting journalists and manoeuvring those branded as critical of the state out of their jobs.
Most party manifestos for presidential and parliamentary elections have been silent on media freedom even though it is well provided for in the constitution. However, the ruling National Resistance Movement, in its manifesto Prosperity for All sounded media-friendly. Under the heading Democracy and Good Governance, it assured Ugandans about the freedom of the media. It will be unfortunate if this was intended to hoodwink people.
In reality, media freedom has suffered a setback, as described above, since the Movement government began its fourth term of office.
Critics of the media argue that the press and radio are part of their own problems. They argue that at election times, when citizens are putting issues to the government, the media are silent on these issues, which is a lost opportunity.
Ms. Alice Drito, is a Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) executive member. Her article was first published in the CJA June report