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UGANDA: The Media is Not Free

Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

KAMPALA, Oct 13 2009 (IPS) - Every Saturday afternoon at a public house in the capital city, Lynne Anite, a journalism student at Makerere University, would join senior government officials, academics, and even business people to debate about current affairs.

In her final year of university, Anite had never been able to get at internship at a media house and she was not even sure she would find a job after graduation.

But Anite was a regular discussant at an Ekimeeza, an open-air public forum unique to Kampala. She would listen and participate in the public debates building her skills on the art of public speaking as she prepared for a career in journalism. Then one day, Anite was offered a job.

"This is because my current boss heard me speak on air and built trust in me," she says. Anite now works at the government-owned Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) as well as the Uganda Media Centre.

Notably, without exposure from the Ekimeeza, Anite would have not got the job she now enjoys. And also millions of Ugandans would not have had a voice to air their views about their country.

And it seems as if they will no longer be able to do so. A month ago all the public forums, except those broadcast by the state-owned Star FM and UBC were indefinitely suspended by the Ugandan government.


It is a move that has left the media, academics and even the public in shock.

The ban

Last month government’s media regulatory body, the Uganda Broadcasting Council, announced that it had indefinitely suspended the broadcast of Ebimeeza (plural for Ekimeeza) until an adequate legal and technical framework has been provided for them.

The decision came a day after a stand-off between the Ugandan government and the largest ethnic group, the Kingdom of Buganda which culminated into city riots that lasted two days and saw tens of people lose lives and property worth over 250,000 dollars destroyed. It also inflicted losses on the country’s economy worth 500,000 dollars, business analysts said.

Government also shut down four FM radio stations, accusing them of inciting the violence. Only one radio station, the catholic Sapientia has since been re opened after three of its presenters were dismissed.

"Ebimeeza programmes are increasingly becoming difficult to manage due to the inability of the radio stations to manage them adequately. Therefore, any radio heard airing them will be dealt with," Godrey Mutabazi Chairman of the Broadcasting Council said then.

"We believe that Ebimeeza’s were not properly established, and secondly they did not have regulations at all. The law says if one wants to get a broadcasting licence, he/she must indicate location and geographical area of coverage.

And the location clearly means the studios and the transmitter sites," Mutabazi later said in an interview with IPS.

"So for someone to leave their studio and establish a location in a bar or night club or under a tree is not within the law. It was also wrong for a programme to come from a bar where everybody comes on the microphone with a glass of beer in one hand. You cannot conduct a meaningful debate in such an atmosphere," he says.

Ironically, government-owned Star FM and Uganda UBC Television still broadcast their live Ebimeeza programmes every Saturday afternoon in a subway pub, uninterrupted. Little wonder, veteran journalist David Ouma Balikowa, who is also a media consultant and a university lecturer of Mass Communication, disagrees with Mutabazi’s justification for the closure.

"One of the important things in economic development is that you should be able to involve the people in the process of development. And if we believe that communication is one of the things that empower people, then, the starting point of people’s participation in economic development and governance is through participating in the communication process," Balikowa says.

Ekimeeza

The first Ekimeeza started in a local pub; the Club Obliggatto, an open-air public house on Old Port Bell Road, east of the Ugandan Capital, Kampala. A gathering of approximately 10-20 middle-aged locals made it routine to assemble for discussions over cold beers every Saturday afternoon. Just like a typical African village beer party, they combined several tables together to make one big platform that could accommodate the numbers for a forum.

Under the confines of a huge plastic canopy, senior government officials, legislatures, academics, sports and media personalities as well as business people alike shared views and debated on topical political, social and economic events and processes that had made the week. As the numbers grew, so did the tables.

Then one day, members of the club decided to call their forum ‘Ekimeeza’, a local word for ‘the big table’. That was nearly two decades ago.

The concept has gone on to become quite popular and culminated in several radio stations airing live broadcasts of the forum and also allowing phone-ins for those who could not attend. It has made Ekimeeza one of Uganda’s most popular public forums.

The concept of Ebimeeza as a medium of communication has since been acknowledged as unique to Uganda, a country with over 100 radio stations, one of the highest numbers in Africa.

"(The) Ekimeeza is a unique innovation as far as broadcasting in Uganda is concerned; where people and communities are allowed to discuss issues of national importance through open forums on air," says Balikowa.

"The Ekimeeza concept should be researched into; on how it can be improved and institutionised in broadcasting, not only in Africa but the rest of the world especially in communities," he tells IPS in an interview.

Setting the agenda

Meanwhile, regular discussants of the forum expressed shock over the indefinite suspension.

"The suspension (of Ekimeeza) came to us as a shock because we have never had any complaint from government that our forum was reporting malicious propaganda," James Wasula, Chairman and founder member of the Ekimeeza, told IPS in an interview.

"These discussions were very healthy because people freely expressed their views and minds. The issues discussed were very important. To a certain extent, they shaped the political destiny of this country because we had people from the government as well as opposition parties – people with divergent views," Wasula says.

He also illustrates that the forum was beneficial for national development. "I can confidently say that we influenced a lot of decisions. There were a number of issues government had come up with; issues they wanted to put forward as policies, as laws. But when we debated them in our forum and exposed the shortfalls, in most cases, government withdrew or refined them or completely scrapped them," he says.

Moreover, the forum did not only discuss political issues, but also social aspects like football and health. For instance in 2000, Wasula says, it successfully hosted sex workers to one of the forums.

"And we had a positive response. Some of the sex workers were reckless with their lives and we could not stop them. But we invited them and they participated in these discussions. At least we told them the dangers of HIV/AIDS and they changed their behaviour to a certain extent.

"There was also a change in football administration, structures and even their Constitution was reviewed," he says.

People missing out…

Regular discussants now hope that government can lift the suspension soon. "It’s (the ban) like being in a prison. This forum was given to us by the private sector (media) to enjoy ourselves, to assemble and associate and peacefully express our views," says Charles Rwomushana, a lawyer and political actor who has actively participated in the forums since 1993. He also once served as Head of Intelligence and Security in the office of the President.

"We are also missing that social interaction. People were changing views and positions, both government and opposition as well as the neutral ones because after discussions on air, we would sit back and analyse each others contributions, criticisms and defences and I thought that was very good," adds Wasula.

…but state looses more

However, Wasula argues, these forums were even more beneficial to government. "These forums would point out the weaknesses of government and their programmes and since these were informal discussions, government could borrow a leaf from what had been discussed. I really think the government is missing out a lot," he says.

"I participated on two fronts," says Rwomushana. "I would listen and follow up public opinion while doing my intelligence work. But later on, I also became an active participant."

"I was monitoring the Ebimeeza because they would help in capturing public mood and opinion. Here, you get the feelings of the population as freely expressed, and as a politician, come in and influence public opinion.

"There is monitoring public opinion, but there is also influencing it by being an active participant," Rwomushana says.

Illegal ban

Rights activists are now challenging the banning of Ekimeeza which they say is illegal.

"I do not know where the government gets the basis for banning it because there is no law that really prohibits Ebimeeza. So it appears that the banning is just an extra-judicial move by the State. "Ordinarily before you ban channels like Ebimeeza, it has to be through court action which they (government) have not done. How do you close radio stations without even going to court?" Balikowa asks.

Censorship

Activists are also concerned that this move is now creating self censorship among citizens.

"There is already a culture of fear and self censorship which is building up not only in the media, but even among the public because people are very conscious on what they say…This is denying the public freedom of expression because the government has not at all given us any convincing reasons as to why the Ebimeeza have been harmful. Short of that, we really think that their move is politically motivated. You must subject the content to a harmful test which they have not done," Balikowa says.

Rwomushana concurs: "The media is not free. Actually the freedom of the media is gone. But there is hope because we can struggle for it," Rwomushana says.

Balikowa on the other hand, calls for political tolerance. "The government is trying to shut down dissenting views and that demonstrates that we are still living in the culture that is still politically intolerant. There is no democratic consensus. And where there is no political pluralism, you cannot have media pluralism at all."

A long wait

However, there is hope. Government is going back to the drawing board in an effort to revive the Ekimeeza, but only after guidelines with a foundation within the law have been formulated.

"We are going to try our level best to ensure that these regulations and legal framework comes out as soon as possible. But things take time. We want to do a good job, and not a rush one. So people will have to be patient," Mutabazi promises.

In the meantime Ugandans eager to participate in the governance of their country, like Anite, have to wait and see when the forums will be reinstated. "I joined the Ekimeeza because I love to debate and express my views. The controversial environment attracted me to join an Ekimeeza… I felt I could do the same or even better," Anite tells IPS.

 
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