Uganda’s claims of press freedom are nothing but a hoax

Claire Mom
By Claire Mom

Writing fellow at the African liberty. She is also a Nigerian journalist passionate about human rights and development.

Posted on Monday, 9 January 2023 11:08

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 26, 2022. (Photo by BADRU KATUMBA / AFP)

It has been decades since Idi Amin Dada, a former president of Uganda, infamously said: "There is freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee your freedom of speech." 19 years after Dada’s death, his terrifying threat still looms over Ugandans, particularly journalists and government opponents.

A wave of draconian laws by Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president since 1986, criminalising journalism has dealt further several blows to the right to information. It is no wonder that Museveni is on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) list of press freedom predators. A free press empowers citizens, gives a voice to poor populations, and holds governments accountable for corruption. If Uganda wants to improve its rankings in democratised nations, it must begin to enable press freedom.

Article 29 of the Ugandan 1995 constitution guarantees press freedom for media practitioners, civil society organisations (CSOs), and all political groupings. However, the recently signed Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act is anything but free. The bill criminalises the online publication of unsolicited hateful, false or malicious information.

It also prohibits the sharing of information likely to degrade or ridicule a person or group of persons. The tricky part is that the law does not define false and malicious information, making it very imprecise. Journalists convicted under the law would be banned from holding public office for 10 years. They could also be fined up to UGX 15m and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

Non-transparent police response

RSF found that Ugandan journalists who turn to the police when threatened often fail to obtain an appropriate response. Most times, the police respond in a non-transparent way that ultimately discourages the reporters. In 2022, nine journalists, including Norman Tumuhimbise and Farida Bikobere, were arrested for cyber-stalking Museveni and offensive communication. After weeks of relentless advocacy by CSOs, they were eventually released.

While a successful intervention from CSOs has not been the case for every harassed journalist, it has worked for many. The few victories prove that advocacy works. If applied more often, CSOs can unite to achieve press freedom in Uganda. Bodies like the Peace Journalism Foundation (PJF) in the country have recorded successes in increasing visibility around safety. PJF, for instance, even extended its conquests to Kenya with support from the US embassy. If other CSOs in Uganda can emulate this pattern, other donor bodies can key into funding and collaborating on peace projects.

Building networks and coalitions of freedom advocates will also go a long way in amplifying the fight against harassment of journalists.

In Nigeria, for example, the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development, through coalitions, has promoted whistleblowing and press freedom. The network has also recorded successes of freed journalists and government accountability. The factor behind the success is not strange – there is strength in numbers. If more Ugandan CSOs can adopt this strategy, then more victories for journalism will be recorded.

Job insecurity

Another troubling factor that contributes to press manipulation is job insecurity in Uganda. Journalists are among the country’s worst-paid professionals. According to Paylab, Ugandan journalists typically earn about UGX 709,198 ($192), and only a few make above $200. Their financial insecurity makes them susceptible to corruption.

To prevent dicey situations, owners of media houses must compensate their journalists more to prevent them from falling prey to people who may want to take advantage of their financial situation. Examples of adequate compensation include salary increments, bonuses, and flexible working hours. These incentives will make the journalists feel more appreciated and, in return, boost productivity.

International bodies like the UN and RSF, and other donor organisations must also increase funding for reports that centre on press freedom and other topical issues. The grants will provide an opportunity for journalists to not only report on matters that concern them, but [also] provide adequate compensation for the value.

Democracy provides an environment that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms and where the freely expressed will of the people thrives.

Other forms of support from these institutions can be via engaging CSOs and government institutions through policy dialogues, sponsoring capacity-building workshops, and providing access to information and data.

Part of Museveni’s efforts to clamp down on journalists was to heighten surveillance on their social network posts. A team of security officers and high-tech experts was assigned to this task. As a result, efforts to stay anonymous while reporting sensitive topics are sometimes frustrating. To counter this, groups like the International NGO Safety Organisation that focus on humanitarian safety must increase access to training for journalists to improve their security. This training can include capacity-building workshops, courses, and programmes introducing journalists to essential pro-security practices.

Democracy provides an environment that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms and where the freely expressed will of the people thrives. However, the obstacles and pressure for self-censorship Ugandan journalists face when they seek information of public interest negates this concept. Uganda must realise that if it wants to carry on being the “Pearl of Africa”, its beauty must first shine from within.

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