Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Media crackdown? Bye-bye to democracy
Government has set up a special ministerial taskforce in what appears another move by the state to muzzle the media. This is not the first time hardline elements in President Museveni’s government have mooted unconstitutional machinations to clamp down on the independent media.

For all its acclaimed popularity, the NRM government has always been wary of free and independent media. But for all the government’s unconstitutional maneouvres to curtail free speech, Mr Kirunda Kivejinja, the minister of information should be the last person to orchestrate a state inspired media crackdown.

Mr Kivejinja was one of the few brave Ugandans who championed media freedoms and the citizens’ right to access information when he together with two other former cabinet ministers, Mr Bidandi Ssali and Mr Kintu Musoke, started the Weekly Topic, a weekly English newspaper that challenged dictatorship in the early 80s.

The Weekly Topic , just like Daily Monitorm, was an influential newspaper which largely survived on the good will of the people. The paper provided critical analysis of the affairs of the state and offered the last frontier of hope to millions of Ugandans at a time when everything else seemed to have gone to the dogs!

Mr Kivejinja knows too well that an independent free media is crucial for the survival of our young democracy. He should be addressing the damning reports that show an increased state persecution of journalists.

Government’s resolve to silence the media and free speech does not tally with a true democracy. The primary objective of freedom of expression is to empower people to participate in decisions that affect their livelihood. In other words, freedoms of speech, expression and the media are intendend to promote accountability and transparency in the governance of the state.

The Supreme Court has cemented this principle of the law by stating that ; “ in a free democratic society it is almost too obvious to need stating that those who hold office in government and who are responsible for public administration must always be open to criticism. Any attempt to stifle or fetter such criticism amounts to political censorship of the most insidious and objectionable kind.”

Among the tasks set for the cabinet ad hoc committee is to explore how the independent media has become a “ mouthpiece” of the opposition. But a democracy means that there will always be two or more competing views- political and otherwise- to allow those who are governed the freedom to make a free choice on how they should be led. The media is just a vehicle by which these democratic ideas are conveyed.

On the balance, government has the largest share of the media platform in this country. By owning two national newspapers, a national radio network and television, the government far outcompetes its political rivals in having its political philosophies and policies disseminated to the masses.

So the Minister of Information cannot make the argument that the state is threatened by independent radio, TV stations and newspapers because they give negative publicity to the government.

In any case, governments all over the world can only sell their policies to the public and the media for support. They cannot force people nor the media ‘ toe the government line.’

We already have a broad legal regime to govern the media in this country. The Press and Journalists Act and the Electronic Media Act are laws which provide for regulation of journalists in public practice and set ethical standards for their conduct.

The laws also provide for disciplinary procedures and measures that can be taken against errant media. The problem is that the state has done very little to enforce these laws to ensure fairness on part of the media and the aggrieved public.

The law should be employed to protect the public good and not political ambitions of a few in leadership.

The writer is a journalist and advocate

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