Tuesday, May 13, 2008


You can’ t gag press and be a democrat

The World Press Freedom Day was marked last week on May 3, with Uganda registering no marked improvement in media freedoms. In fact, the state continued to raid media houses with the latest being The Independent, a bi–monthly magazine in Kampala.

At Daily Monitor, no less than 10 journalists including senior editors are at various stages of prosecution for alleged publication of false news, criminal libel and sedition. This is irrespective of the fact that all the highlighted offences are obsolete in a democratic society which Uganda purports to be and are in total contravention of the constitution.

Chapter four of our constitution provides for freedoms of speech, press and expression. And in the landmark supreme case of Charles Onyango-Obbo and Andrew Mujuni Mwenda vs. Attorney General (AG) court stated: “It’s difficult to imagine a guaranteed right more important to democratic society than freedom of expression. Indeed, a democracy cannot exist without that freedom to express new ideas and to put forward opinions about the functioning of public institutions.”

Court emphasised the fact that press freedom and the individual’s right to express ideas and thoughts freely cannot be suppressed unless the situations created by allowing the freedom are pressing and the community interest is endangered. This means that the anticipated danger to national security and public order should not be remote, conjectural or farfetched.

But in Uganda the government continues to treat press freedoms as a matter of strategic public bluster and not a constitutional guarantee. This is because the state functionaries are averse to public criticism because of the irrational and, in some cases, undemocratic manner in which they run government.

That’s why government often unleashes security agents to harass, beat and lock- up journalists for a mere spoken or written word.
One wonders why a government with two national newspapers, two radio stations and a national television should panic just because one or two private publications have run a “negative” story about the state.

Why can’t government with all its well paid media advisers and strategists counter the alleged falsehoods peddled by the “errant” private publications through public sensitisation and provision of the correct information other than threatening and making the life of journalists very difficult?

Why should the state intimidate its citizenry while at the same time claim accolades for being democratic? A vibrant and free media environment is but the hallmark of civil liberties.

There is no denying that the media practitioners have to act responsibly. It’s also true that some elements in the media are guilty of partisanship, corruption, lack of professionalism due to little or no professional training. But these ills should not be the basis for government to gag the press.

The Press and Media Act has sufficient cure for all these ills. There are sanctions which can be imposed on wayward journalists, such as suspending or cancelling their practising certificates after a fair hearing.

There is an elaborate appeal process right up to the Supreme Court and better still the aggrieved public can sue to recover damages and be compensated for the wrongs suffered at the hands of journalists.
The state therefore has no justification nor constitutional authority to arrest journalists and have their houses ransacked for purported crimes not recognised under our constitution.

A free media environment allows citizens to enjoy their constitutional rights to access information freely so that they make informed decisions about how they should be governed. These rights cannot be taken away by the state because they are inherent.

The media being the last frontier to realising civil liberties should never give in to state patronage let alone harassment.

The writer is a journalist and advocate

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