In Summary
  • The issue: Press freedom.
  • Our view: As the reverberations from Press Freedom Day die down, the government of Uganda needs to recommit to press freedom.

Friday, May 3, was Press Freedom Day. Envoys, media and rights organisations and individuals took turns to castigate the government of Uganda, particularly the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and the Uganda Police Force, over their mishandling of the media.

On the same day, perhaps due to the outpouring of condemnation, UCC, in response to a request by the broadcasters’ body, agreed to a meeting that will likely lead to a withdrawal of its recommendation to broadcast houses to suspend over a dozen producers and news managers.

UCC and the police have come under fire because of their conduct. In recent months, for instance, the police have stopped rural radio stations from hosting Opposition politicians, particularly Dr Kizza Besigye, on shows that have been paid for. This is a source of income for rural radio stations, which don’t ordinarily make a lot of money, but it is also undue interference in the radio stations’ programming.

In an article that was published in this newspaper two weeks ago, UCC denied any involvement in stopping Dr Besigye and his colleagues from appearing on radio stations in upcountry areas, but it stopped short of guiding on how such situations should be handled despite it being the statutory body charged with licensing and regulating broadcast houses.

Resident District Commissioners (RDCs), commandeering the police, have been the face of the ignoble job of disrupting upcountry radio shows in recent months, as indeed they have done in the past. On some occasions, they have cited the Public Order Management Act (POMA) as the basis for their actions, but someone appearing on a radio show cannot be construed to constitute a public meeting by any stretch of the imagination.

When push has come to shove and UCC, the police and other security agencies, or the RDCs have been challenged to cite the provisions of the law that back their actions, they have come up short. But this has not deterred them from continuing with their actions of issuing draconian orders or taking actions that negatively affect media houses and violate the rights of different players.

And in most cases when there have been actions that have attracted widespread condemnation, the responsible public officers have pulled back, only to repeat the same or similar actions after some time. It would appear that the players know that all the victims and others can do is to speak out in condemnation and nothing else. This has bred impunity as the law is not respected.
As the reverberations from Press Freedom Day die down, the government of Uganda needs to recommit to press freedom.

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