unhealthy geneva;”>David Ouma Balikoowa, one of the founders of the Monitor Publications Limited addressed what journalists should do to redeem their freedom.
“This year the world marks 20 years of press freedom day. In Uganda we also mark 20 years since the first privately owned radio station, Sanyu FM hit the air waves in 1993 bringing the state monopoly on broadcasting to an end. A year before The Monitor had hit the streets,” noted Balikoowa.
However, the media space in Uganda has continued to grow. The country today boasts of more than 200 FM radios and TV stations across the country.
In 2007, the country got its first radio network, the Uganda Radio Network providing news to media houses all over the country.
“Several publications such as Red paper, The Observer, Business Week, The Independent, Onion, Sun and other magazines have also hit the streets. The majority of the media houses now have on-line editions of their various products,” said Balikoowa.
World Press Freedom Day is meant to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the media and remind the state of its duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the right to hold opinions without interference; seek, receive and impart information regardless of frontiers through interpersonal, artistic, electronic or written medium.
He asserted: “To appreciate the challenges and lessons in the 20 years Uganda has marked World Press Day, we need to remain ourselves of the context in which the media has operated.”
The turn of the 90s marked the beginning of dissent against the NRM interim broad-based government. Waswa Ziritwawula was among the first people to quit in 1990 after the NRM extended its interim period in power by another five years.
Attempts to hold political rallies were met with brutal force from security agencies. Key figures in the political opposition spent time between police stations and courts as they continued to defy the ban on political party activities in the country.
The NRM government persistently told the outside world that there was no political party opposition in Uganda. They often depicted it as ‘a creation of the media which continued to report about opposition party’ news conferences and releases, arrests and court battles. Some political analysts blaming Uganda’s problems on old political parties advocated for their ban and creation of new political parties.
The removal of presidential term limits in the constitution and endemic corruption increased the friction within the ruling party and with the opposition and civil society.
Balikoowa however, noted that in 1995, Uganda got a fairly progressive constitution. “It had substantive provisions on freedom of expression and media and other human rights. Article 29 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and media while Article 41 guarantees right of access to information. These and many other provisions boosted the prospects for freedom of expression in the country,” he noted.
“The above unstable political context affected media freedom in the country. There was always a lurking danger for the media working under the above context of one party rule, prolonged and bloody wars with the rebels,” added Balikoowa.
He further remarked that writing and airing content about government and many of its officials in the last 20 years, has been like trying to scrub the back of a man who never wants to bathe. “Each time journalists try to pour water on their backs, they kick them in the ribs and splash water on them.”
The media took much of the brunt as Ugandans asked hard questions about the barn on political activity, failure to end the LRA and ADF wars, the army‘s role in the wars in neighboring countries and the endemic corruption.
The monitor newspaper and KFM radio were shut down for several days in 2002 and 2005 respectively. Other radio stations have suffered similar fate,CBS, Radio One, Suubi FM and Radio Sapentientia were shut down in 2009. The CBS remained off air for a year.
Government seized this opportunity to finally ban the open live radio forums or bimeeza. Several journalists have been arrested, dragged to court and subjected to long trials or battered by security operatives while on duty. Acts of the harassment by the state have put the future of the media constantly in questions. Journalists work with fear of imminent closure of their media houses or arrests torture hovering on their heads.
Media regulatory bodies tend to find their essence in issuing regular threats to step up control. The laws on limitations on media freedom are constantly cited selectively pubic order, public interest nation security interests.etc. This is expected of the state. But when media regulatory bodies chorus similar threats without citing the law on limitations on limitations, they simply reinforce the view that they operate in the armpits of the state.
Balikoowa noted that the other challenge is about the ownership of the numerous private FM stations. “Guests who hold divergent views to those in power are often censored out by owners a majority of whom belong or are aligned to the ruling party. They may own the stations but the spectrum is limited public resource.
Amid all these challenges, the media always lacked strategic response to the threats and bullying that put their future constantly into question.
For a long time the media had succumbed to threats as inevitable and routinely normal. Talking to journalists in the early 90’s one did not get the sense that journalists saw the struggle for media freedom as being on their shoulders. There was always that wait and hope that the state would finally restrain itself from harassing them.
As the state tightened the noose around the media, journalists started to wake up. Journalist Haruna Kanabi was the first and only victim of a successful prosecution by the state on false news.
The Monitor and its journalists Andrew Mwenda and Charles Onyango Obbo followed after they were dragged to court by the state over the Kabila gold story; the Monitor saw the threat as of strategic importance to start disseminating the unjust colonial legal arsenal which the state was using to taunt the media,” he narrated.
Balikoowa recommended that as long as the future of the media freedom remains in question, every threat against the media should be viewed with strategic importance.
The media has to come together and deal with the toughest problems first; fight the unjust laws and drag errant media-bashing state actors to court. Litigation is a viable tool in the advocacy for freedom of the media.
“The state is not about to willingly consent ground, yesterday, today and tomorrow, we therefore need a sustained campaign to make the authorities recognize that open space where free ideas flourish is the best furnace of revolutionary ideas,” he urged the journalists.
He added: “Critical independent thinking in the public sphere or should not be equated to insubordination or being rebellious, the media should stop stereotyping critical and independent Ugandans as rebels.”