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RIGHTS-UGANDA: Colliding with the Fourth Estate

Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

KAMPALA, Oct 27 2009 (IPS) - Charles Odobo Bichachi, editor of the Independent Newspaper has in a span of a year, been summoned to the police several times accused of publishing seditious statements. And just last month, Bichachi fell into trouble again: this time over a cartoon.

Bichachi is on police bond, which requires him to report to the Criminal Investigation Department every fortnight.

His recent sequence of arrests has left the seasoned journalist so disturbed that sometimes he feels like quitting the profession. But, he says, that is not an option because battle for press freedom must go on.

"If I quit, then possibly tomorrow will be worse than today. Somebody will have to fight for democracy, for freedom and we must fight against corruption because if we give up now, it is going to weigh down on everybody," he says.

The cartoon

The cartoon Bichachi was arrested in relation to was an illustration predicting events ahead of the 2011 Presidential elections. It had a caricature of Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, from the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party holding a piece of paper headlined, 'NRM Campaign Strategies: Things to Do'.

Ticked as point one on the list was ‘Re-appointing the EC’. Ironically, Museveni had just re-appointed top officers of the national Electoral Commission (EC) that had been accused by civil society and election observers of having caused flaws (alleged rigging) during the 2006 Presidential elections.

"The cartoon was therefore lampooning that re-appointment. It showed the first steps towards the rigging of the 2011 elections," Bichachi says.

"What we were trying to do is raise awareness that the process of the next election might follow the pattern of the previous one… The cartoon was posing questions for people to talk about, to ask themselves whether this is where we are heading."

"We stood our ground and insisted that these are pertinent public issues… the cartoon creates, it laughs and ridicules and yet brings up issues for discussion," Bichachi says.

Government did not see it that way and Bichachi was arrested for sedition.

Alarm bells

In the last two decades, over twenty media practitioners have been summoned, arrested and detained for different reasons and charged with crimes like sedition, sectarianism and criminal libel.

However, this is the first time in Uganda’s media history that journalists have been summoned over a cartoon. In the earlier days, Museveni joked about newspapers sketching his caricature. This change of attitude is now creating a new wave of fear in the media as the 2011 Presidential elections draw near.

"I think it is an alarm bell," Bichachi says, "It is telling us that the bar is getting lowered further and the room for independent journalism is actually getting narrower."

"We know that next year is the crunch time and our strategy is to survive any closures or any harassment so that we are able to play our role in the 2011 Presidential and Parliamentary elections when an independent media will be very much needed," Bichachi says.


Uganda has a history of silencing independent journalists. Over the past two decades, several media houses have been shut down for publishing or broadcasting information that the state deems prejudicial to national security.

In September this year, the Broadcasting Council shut down four FM radios accusing them of inciting violence following a stand-off between the government and the Buganda Kingdom which culminated into city riots.

These riots culminated after announcements were made on some local FM stations that the Kabaka Ronald Mutebi (King of Buganda, Uganda’s largest ethnic group) had been banned by government from travelling to the neighbouring Kayunga District to preside over the kingdom’s Youth Day festivities.

Government said it was not safe for the Kabaka to travel to Kayunga because there were some internal disputes in the same area. But his subjects interpreted it differently, causing a riot in the city and its suburbs.

Meanwhile, a growing crackdown on independent and critical reporting in general is causing concern among rights activists. Criminal prosecutions against Uganda’s largest independent newspaper the Daily Monitor are on the rise against the backdrop of mounting national tensions in the lead-up to general elections in 2011. Four journalists from the Daily Monitor are facing criminal prosecutions, joining four others already charged since 2007.

In August two editors, David Kalinaki and Henry Ochieng, of the Daily Monitor and its sister title the Sunday Monitor respectively, were charged with forgery. This was after the paper ran a reproduction of a leaked presidential memorandum. The Daily Monitor had acknowledged some errors in the reprinting of the document and published a correction.

Veteran journalist David Ouma Balikowa who is one of the founder members of the Daily Monitor is not surprised at the developments.

"The media is only free as long as one does not antagonise the state," Balikowa says.

He recalls when an advert ban was imposed on the Daily Monitor by the state, prohibiting all government institutions and discouraging private companies from running adverts with independent media for almost six years. This crippled the media house financially.

However, Balikowa attributes increasing media suppression to President Museveni’s overstay in power. He has ruled for 23 years after amending the 1995 Constitution and lifting the Presidential Term limits. He has also often hinted at standing for Presidency again in 2011.

"Governments that do not want to leave power are likely to be less tolerant to the media," he says.

Draconian laws

But that’s not all. Laws on sedition, sectarianism, criminal libel, criminal trespass and sections of the Penal Code Act and Press and Journalists Act continue to distress press freedom.

However, the law on terrorism is the most extreme. It hands out the death sentence to any journalist whose work is deemed to be promoting terrorism.

Little wonder, many young journalists are now becoming reluctant to venture into political reporting thus undermining the ability of the media to play its watchdog role, observers say.

"We are increasingly getting into a situation where the media is simply moving towards coverage of social issues like entertainment and love relationships because these are not what government is worried about," Balikowa says.

No freedom, just numbers

Uganda has one of the most vibrant media industries in Africa. In 1993, the state liberalised the airwaves leading to the mushrooming of over one hundred FM radio stations.

There are also over 20 newspapers of newspapers and fifteen TV stations. Little wonder this trend has often been associated with press freedom. However, observers argue, numbers are a wrong yardstick to measure media freedom. Indeed, the seemingly free media has encountered a lot of stumbling blocks like censorship, state interference and harsh regulations.

"Some talk about the freedom of the media by counting the number of radio and TV stations. But there is no freedom of media…Whether you have 100 radio stations or more, that says very little about the state of media freedoms in this country," says Prof. Fredrick Jjuuko, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Makerere University in Kampala.

He says with liberalisation of the economy, radio stations were merely created for commercial purposes and therefore carry the flag of economic rights rather than the one of civil and political rights.

"That is why you find a lot of commercialism on radio stations and the government does not mind that. What it minds is the civil-political content like the Ebimeeza and other political statements made," Jjuuko tells IPS.

Civil society speaks

Civil society organisations have expressed concern at the state at which media freedoms are shrinking.

"No state gives people rights of expression and media freedoms. Their role is to protect and preserve these rights. As human rights defenders therefore, we feel that our country has betrayed the trust of the people by continuing to gag these rights that they are supposed to preserve and protect," Patrick Tumwine Advocacy and Research Officer Human Rights Network an umbrella organisation for human rights bodies in Uganda told IPS.

Recently, the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) also called for the repeal of the laws on sedition, sectarianism and criminal libel because they infringe on media freedoms which are a fundamental right.

In its 2008 report released recently, UHRC referred to the laws as ‘an ever present threat’ to democratic principles. However, government spokesperson Kabakumba Masiko who admits that she has not yet read the report is adamant, arguing that human rights groups are characteristically biased towards the media.

"Democracy? What democracy? Holding someone accountable for his/her actions and words is undemocratic? Human rights are not going to run Uganda," she says.

She also said press laws are in place as a ‘disciplinary measure’ to ensure ‘responsible reporting’ in the media.

"The bottom line is that the media has to be responsible in their reporting and management. Once that is done, and then other things can be handled. These laws are in place because there is a problem and a gap that we are trying to fill. It is clear from the way they (the media) report and from what they say that they are not responsible," she told IPS.

However, Kalinaki does not agree with Masiko whom he says does not have the competence to advise the media on responsible reporting.

"Laws, such as that of sedition, criminal defamation and the Anti Terrorism Act which we have on our books, are designed to stop the media from scrutinising and critically assessing what those in power – the likes of Kabakumba Masiko – are doing in the name of the people.

"The government, which is the subject of media scrutiny, must not be the one to determine how well the media operates and therefore legislate against media freedom. The market will eventually punish poor journalism and reward good, responsible reporting. If the state is interested in helping the media, then it should just leave it alone," Kalinaki says.

The future

So does independent journalism have a future in Uganda?

"Yes it does," says Balikowa, "but the journalists themselves have to fight for it. The media needs to realise that freedom of expression and free media and rights cannot be granted on a silver plate," Balikowa says.  

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