Mr President, don’t hunt your honest ally
President Museveni has of late come hard on the media which he accuses of sabotaging investment by maligning investors. This is a worrying development, not that it’s a direct attack on the freedoms of speech and expression but that it comes at a time when our Parliament has been cowed by the executive.
In a true democracy, both Parliament and the media play the role of watchdog to check the excesses of the executive. The Judiciary on the other hand, plays the role of an arbitrator to resolve conflicts between the other three arms of the state namely the executive, legislature and the media while at the same time upholding the provisions of our constitution and the attendant laws.
Ugandan journalists have continued to be harassed and more than a dozen are now facing various charges ranging from criminal libel to sedition and promotion of sectarianism even when these bad laws are now a subject of a constitutional petition which was filed by Andrew Mwenda and the East African Media Institute.
And since the matter is yet to be disposed of by the Constitutional Court, it would be prudent for the executive to suspend such offences until the court makes its ruling on the their fate. This would also be the right criminal procedure whenever there are constitutional issues to be determined in substantive petitions lying before court.
Instead, the state conveniently prefers to ignore these rather obvious/basic procedures of the law in their relentless effort to stifle media freedoms and the citizens’ right to challenge bad governance. These machinations by the state to gag the media have far reaching consequences for the wider freedoms of the citizenry, the stability and development of our young democracy.
Democracy thrive best in an atmosphere of trust, openness and accountability. It’s a constitutional right for the citizens to access information held by government and its agents in order to hold our leaders/public servants accountable for their actions.
In civilised societies media offences have been decriminalised and those wronged pursue civil remedies. The media has an important role to play as a watchdog of the public by exposing the ills in government and effectively help to stem government’s abuse of power. For democracy to flourish therefore, there must be an independent, free and vibrant media and the individual’s rights of free speech, expression and access to information must be protected.
Governments must encourage and allow positive criticism and promote tolerance in the interest of public good. Whereas Uganda is said to have relative press freedom compared to other African countries, it should be noted that the said freedom does not arise out of instrumental guarantees, but out of the mere goodwill will of the regime in Kampala. This must change. All Ugandans including the President must appreciate that fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual are inherent and not granted by the state.
Uganda still has on its statute books some of the most obnoxious, obsolete laws which were largely designed to curtail free speech and media freedoms to allow the dictatorial regimes of the day to entrench themselves in power. Some of these laws have been applied by government whenever its interests of beating the media into line arise.
These bad laws which can be successfully challenged in any court with competent jurisdiction, including the East African Court of Justice, (EACJ) can be found in the Uganda’s Criminal Penal Code Act as amended, The Press and Journalists Act, The
Anti Terrorism Act and the Electronic Media Act 2000.
The President’s apparent determination “to deal” with the media is very disturbing to say the least. The heads of state and government from Eastern Africa must embrace and work with the media for the region’s greater development. Instead of bashing the independent media, Mr Museveni should listen to them more and get unbiased information that can help him and his government grow our democracy.
Mr Sserwanga writer is a journalist and advocate