Deputy Speaker calls on UHRC to Mediate Ongoing Standoff between the State and JournalistsMedia Rights

The Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanya has urged journalists to always seek redress from the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) or Courts of law whenever they feel their rights have been infringed upon. In his speech as Chief Guest, read for him by the State Minister in Charge of General Duties in the Office of the Prime Minister Ms. Mary Karooro Okurut at the Commemoration of the 16th World Press Freedom Day (WPFD), The Rt. Hon. Oulanya also recognized the need for the state to act with restraint.

“This day is important for all stakeholders to audit and reflect on media freedom in the country. It also offers an opportunity for us to dialogue on the challenges facing the media and the country. I urge the media to embrace dialogue when challenges come up. The UHRC is there to foster such dialogues,” the Deputy Speaker noted.

Speaking to over 300 participants who attended the celebrations at the Kampala Railway Grounds mainly consisting of journalists, University students, civil society organisations and representatives of government departments, Hon Okurut advised journalists to utilise the option of courts for redress whenever they feel that their rights are violated. She said the Speaker had implored the media fraternity to stop reporting un- researched stories, those which call upon the populace to rise up and those which promote ethnic violence. This year’s World Press Freedom Day was commemorated under the theme: Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation.”

On his part, the Chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission Mr. Med S.K Kaggwa said the country has over the years made great strides in advancing media freedom as evident in policies like the liberalization of the media which has seen the number of media houses grow; an elaborate legal regime and the advent of the digital era.

“We have however, as a country regrettably experienced some draw backs such as incidents of violence against journalists while on duty by some overzealous individuals; continued application of some unfavorable and archaic laws and some negative consequences of social media, to mention but a few,” he said during the national World Press Freedom Day celebrations held at Kampala Railway Grounds on Friday May 3, 2019.

He said the importance of free, independent, vibrant and gender-sensitive media to enable citizens express themselves while at the same time facilitating them to enjoy their right to information in developing democracies like Uganda cannot be over emphasized. Mr. Kaggwa also noted that media reports have helped the Commission to follow up or monitor incidents with human rights implications which it has handled and continues to handle including complaints of violation of media freedom.

“Today’s commemoration reminds us of our duty as a country to strive to entrench a justice system that supports free and safe journalism; and to improve the legal regime in Uganda by reviewing those archaic laws that curtail media freedom whenever they are applied,” he said.

He further noted that media freedoms like all other rights come with duties and responsibilities and added the Commission’s voice on that of other human rights defenders in advocating for media rights The Chairperson also called upon the media to fulfill their duties and obligations so that the power they wield is not abused but used to build the country; enhance peace and harmony; and promote the respect for human dignity. He on the other hand urged the duty bearers to hold perpetuators accountable by punishing them as a deterrent measure. He echoed earlier observations that media freedoms are critical to freedom of expression and enjoyment of other rights.

The Country Representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Uganda, Mr. Ayeda Robert Kotchani said World Press Freedom Day offers all human rights actors the opportunity to act positively towards ensuring an environment where free speech is an ingredient for democratic growth, progress and development.

He concurred that Uganda’s legal framework offers opportunities for promoting freedom of expression and of the press, which if effectively applied could place the country amongst standard practitioners of these fundamental civil and political rights.

“Media owners need to value the contribution that media professionals are making to inform public opinion by looking at their welfare and adopting motivational measures to encourage more professionalism. At a time when journalism is increasingly becoming a risky profession in many parts of the world, it may be important for us to take stock of how useful local media has been to the development processes that have characterized the past years. Often referred to as the fourth estate, media remains vital to democratic processes. A strong media symbolises a growing and potentially powerful democracy while a weakened media on the contrary raises questions of political willingness to promote accountability and good governance,” Kotchani warned.

He noted that Government needs to fulfill the obligation to protect which is enshrined in duly ratified international human rights instruments, by promoting safe space for the practice of journalism.  He further noted that on their part, media professionals, without departing from their core values, also need to contribute to national development processes through positive reporting under the principles of responsible journalism.

He pledged that his office will continue work with and support of national actors to promote the rights to freedom of expression and opinion.

Ms. Roseline Agoal from UNESCO Uganda who represented the Secretary General Ms. Audrey Azoulay who was away in Addis Ababa – Ethiopia to attend the international celebrations of the World Press Freedom Day held at the headquarters of the African Union, delivered their statement at the national celebrations at the Railway Grounds in Kampala. She noted that press freedom is the cornerstone of democratic societies and that all nations are strengthened by information, debate and the exchange of opinion.

“While these periods are key moments of political liveliness, they also lend themselves to all the dangers of instrumentalization, combined with practices such as obstruction, harassment, unlawful arrest and even murder, which prevent journalists from doing their work freely,” she said.  “Impunity for crimes committed against journalists is a threat that affects all our societies. This threat requires us to be constantly vigilant. We must act together to protect the freedom of expression and safety of journalists.” She went on to reveal that the UNESCO observatory recorded 99 journalists killed in 2018 and a total of 1,307 journalists killed between 1994 and 2018.

At the National Conference held on the same day which was spearheaded by the African Center for Media Excellence (ACME) at Golf Course Hotel , Kampala which was part of the national celebrations, the US Ambassador to Uganda Deborah Malac said the media plays a critical role in ensuring fairness, accountability, and responsibility among elected officials; it shines a light on corruption, thereby contributing to transparency and good governance and it is the champion of the disadvantaged and the voiceless.

“Of course this all makes sense on paper, but in practice, it doesn’t always work out this way.  No country, including my own, has a perfect record with press freedom. Unfortunately, in Uganda, press freedom is under assault.  Just two days ago, the Uganda Communications Commission ordered 13 radio and television stations to suspend 39 staff on allegations of breaching minimum broadcasting standards.  And yet the UCC did not specify which content did not meet these standards.  What does minimum broadcasting standards even mean!  It appears that television and radio stations are under assault from the government simply for doing their job of reporting live news,” she said in her remarks.

She noted that as a means of protection, journalists in Uganda are increasingly resorting to self-censorship. She said Government censorship combined with media self-censorship means that citizens are getting less truthful and less accurate information than they deserve which is sending a wrong message to Ugandans. She said the United States strongly urges the Ugandan government to take action to protect and defend press freedom, and to hold individuals who violate this freedom accountable. She also pointed out that the in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index of 2019, Uganda dropped eight places to a ranking of 125 out of 180 countries in the world, compared to its 117 position in the previous year.

“I would most important of all want to thank all the journalists present here today for what you do to make Uganda a stronger democracy.  You have chosen a profession that is difficult for many reasons including low pay, tough working conditions, harassment, and risks, just to name a few.  You have however chosen a profession that is incredibly important and one where you can make significant contributions to the development of your country. I therefore encourage you to stick with it and keep up the good fight. I commend you for your courage in the face of extreme adversity and assure you that on its part, the U.S. Embassy will be your committed partner because we need you and Uganda needs you,” the Ambassador noted.

Other partners who participated in the national celebrations like the National Coordinator of the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ) Mr. Robert Ssempala wondered whose interest the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) was serving in ordering 13 Radio and television stations to suspend 39 Programme Managers and News Editors!! Ms.  Namirembe Lugemwa the Vice President of Uganda Journalists Association (UJA) demanded that UCC rescinds its order of suspending journalists, and threatened that journalists were considering staging a demonstration. She called upon all journalists including editors and other top managers to remain united and be ready to respond to general causes whenever called upon.

Responding to concerns raised about the recent UCC action of calling for the suspension of journalists, the spokesperson Mr. Ibrahim Bbosa noted that regulators the world over have a challenging job so UCC was no exception. He clarified that while the Executive Director Engineer Godfrey Mutabazi bears the blame for the recent decision by UCC affecting journalists, the decision was made by the policy body of the institution and only communicated by Mr Mutabazi who is the chief spokesperson of UCC.  He decried the presence of some ambiguous legal provisions in Uganda which he noted call for urgent review.

On his part, the Electoral Commission (EC) Spokesperson Mr. Jotham Taremwa pointed out the need for journalists to acquire specialized training in reporting on specified fields other than being a jack of all trade. He regretted that the practice of journalists reporting on each and every subject matter has in many instances caused misinformation, quoting wrong statistics and misrepresentation of facts.

The national commemoration activities in Uganda were spearheaded by the Uganda Human Rights Commission in partnership with other organisations including the Uganda Christian University Department of Communication, Media Focus on Africa (MFA), African Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (ACTV), Uganda Media Women Association (UMWA), Freedom House, CIPESA, Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), AFIC, Citizen Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU). The celebrations were supported with funding from the Government of Uganda and development partners who included the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), United States Agency for Development (USAID), the National Commission of UNESCO Uganda, UN Office of the High Commissioner, Uganda and Nile Breweries Limited.

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