Ploy to gag press is plot to stab democracy
August 14, 2007
The National Security Committee in tandem with the police Crime Management Committee is persuading cabinet to institute measures that will curtail the work of journalists and stifle press freedom and freedom of speech.
The police’s Media and Political Squad has been instructed to swing in action and pounce on those members of the public who make “irresponsible and criminal utterances against government and the person of the president.”
This comes at a time when our brothers across the border in Kenya are also caught in a similar quagmire: A new Kenyan media law will compel editors to disclose their confidential sources.
The Kenya Media Bill 2007 also intends to make cross-media ownership illegal, giving leeway to the government to deal with media houses perceived to have overstepped their limits.
Ironically both the Kampala and Nairobi regimes are working on laws that are supposedly intended to protect whistleblowers in the fight against corruption and other related vices in public administration. And this is the dilemma. How can the two governments protect whistleblowers while gagging alternative voices? You cannot eat your cake and have it.
That’s why the Kenya Editors Guild has stood up to fight for the people's freedom. They have described the new proposed media law as unconstitutional, archaic, unconscionable, inoperable, malicious and one that is clearly aimed at turning back the gains of Kenya’s 43 years of democracy. The situation in Uganda is not any different. The machinations of the National Security Committee to target journalists and other media practitioners are not only illegal but draconian in character.
In Uganda and Kenya, we practise the English common law principles that allow for journalists to be let free once they argue against revealing their sources on grounds of confidentiality. In essence, protection of sources is at the core of the practice of journalism. This is the gateway to the wider freedoms of speech and expression which are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights (Chapter 4) enshrined in our national constitution.
Although the 1995 constitution does not define what freedom of expression and speech means, a reference can be made to the 1962 constitution which defined these freedoms to mean; “the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” The Supreme Court has since held that the omission of this definition in the 1995 constitution did not alter the meaning or character of the said freedoms.
The protection of these rights is essential to our fragile democracy. These rights are the bedrock of democratic governance. Meaningful participation of the governed in their governance, which is the hallmark of democracy, can only be assured through optimal exercise of the freedom of expression.
It’s quite disheartening in this era to hear that an opposition politician has been denied access to a national resource like the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) television or worse still having a journalist fired because he hosted an opposition leader. The UBC is a national television, which should serve and cater for interests of all Ugandans. It’s not a private enterprise that should be monopolised by one politician or political party. Democracy calls for tolerance of divergent views and allows the citizenry to make independent and informed decisions on how to be governed.
In the Supreme Court case of Charles Onyango Obbo and Andrew Mujuni Mwenda vs. Attorney General, the court held that it's difficult to imagine a guaranteed right more important to a democratic society than freedom of expression. Court said that indeed a democracy cannot exist without that freedom to express new ideas and to put forward opinions about the functioning of public institutions.
A USA Supreme Court judge, Justice Hugo Black, observed some 30 years ago: “The government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people to make democratic decisions.”
The Ugandan public and our Kenyan brothers and sisters deserve better. The freedoms of the media, expression and speech are protected by our constitution and they should be respected by the State.
The writer is a journalist and advocate.
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