The Uganda Communications Commission’s recent move to take Radio Hoima off air for two days was an abuse of media freedom and the right to free expression. The move raises serious concerns on the manner in which UCC is exercising its powers. The closure of Radio Hoima was in violation of the procedures set in the 2013 Uganda Communications Act and the right to a fair hearing.
In his May 25 letter, UCC executive director Godfrey Mutabaazi stated that the Radio Hoima broadcast was “sectarian,” “promot[ed] violence and ethical prejudice,” and “in breach of the minimum broadcasting standards as provided for in Section 31 and Schedule 4 of the Uganda Communications Act of 2013.”
However, the UCC did not give Radio Hoima a fair hearing regarding these allegations before switching off the station. UCC is required by the Uganda Communications Act of 2013 to investigate allegations before any punitive action is taken against a station. Once the investigation are done, UCC must follow the procedures laid down in the Act in revoking or suspending a license or issuing a fine or another remedy.
In this regard, UCC completely switched off Radio Hoima without allowing it to defend itself against the allegations. On the days following the action, UCC’s own investigations showed that Radio Hoima was not in violation of the minimum broadcasting standards. It is mandatory under the law for the UCC to give the operator written notice of the reasons for the “intended suspension or revocation” and to allow the radio operator to address these reasons to UCC before taking action. Yet UCC gave Radio Hoima no opportunity to address the complaints before acting to turn off the station.
By law, UCC is not allowed to form an opinion of the operator’s representations before hearing the other side. Radio Hoima should have been allowed to address the complaints and show evidence that it was not in violation of the Act before the action was taken. Why weren’t investigations conducted before Radio Hoima was switched off? Radio Hoima was allowed to defend itself and give its representations only after the UCC took this heavy-handed and punitive action. The UCC’s unjustified actions cost the station millions of shillings, in addition to damage to reputation. Besides, Radio Hoima was forced to bear the costs of the two-day shutdown and to pay a fine, while the Act allows UCC to require a remedy only if a breach has actually occurred. UCC found there was no breach, yet still required a remedy of a Shs2 million fine.
The right to due process, which includes fair treatment under the law, is a universal human right. It is also a requirement under the Uganda Communication Act of 2013 as it relates to the UCC’s dealings with broadcasters. In addition, international law protects the right of Ugandans to freely express ideas and information. Uganda is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the rights of Ugandans to share information through the media of their choice, including radio.
The 2011 UN Joint Declaration of Freedom of Expression also holds that communication ‘kill switches’ are never justified under human rights law, and that states should take measures to ensure freedom of information access for all.
Gracie Smith, New York University
School of Law