The government through the Uganda Media Council recently launched a nation-wide campaign aimed at implementing a widely discredited registration exercise for all journalists in the country.
But the Media Council’s drive is being implemented alongside a parallel campaign funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that seeks to create awareness about Sustainable Development Goals among Ugandan journalists.
Now defenders of journalists’ rights and freedom of the media are angry not only with the government for launching an exercise that has been rejected by many practitioners and is currently being challenged in the Constitutional court, but also with the UN for accepting to be associated with a campaign they regard as repressive.
Moses Lwokyaza, the Coordinator of Busoga Media Network, told The Sunrise that the Media Council held a workshop for Busoga region journalists, Media Managers and Editors in Jinja town last week during which the Council officials told reporters to prepare to register with the council very soon or else face arrest.
But according to Lwokyaza, officers from the Media Crimes department of the Police told participants at the workshop that the police is set to start a nation-wide operation to arrest all journalists that work without a permit as required by the Press and Journalists Act 2000.
Enacted in 2000, the Press and Journalists Act was introduced as a measure to try to professionalize the journalism in Uganda. The law sets minimum standards for anyone to practice journalism including possession of bachelors degree in journalism or mass communication or a degree in another field but with a diploma in journalism. In addition, the law requires all journalists to obtain a license from the government media council in order to be allowed to practice in the country.
But the law has since its enactment faced stiff resistance from many media practitioners as well as journalism rights advocates who have argued that any form of licensing of journalists by the state is bound to bring about suppression of dissenting views.
Because of the resistance from the wider media industry, the Press and Journalists Act has largely remained a dead law and has never been implemented.
Last year the Human Rights Network of Journalists (HRNJ-Uganda) went to the Constitutional Court to challenge the Press and Journalists Act stating that it conflicts with several provisions of the 1995 constitution that guarantee freedom of the media and of expression. The Court is yet to start hearing the case. At the same time though, HRNJ is pursuing another case against the same act in the East African Court of Justice.
HRNJ Coordinator Robert Ssempala has expressed his disappointment with the UN body for supporting a government agency in implementing an agenda he considers repressive and one that seeks to muzzle the media and greater freedom of expression among Ugandans.
Ssempala said: “The UN needs to appreciate our reservations about the undertakings by the Media Council to conscript journalists unwillingly to a mandatory registration exercise that stems from a law that we are challenging in courts of law.”
Ssempala has argued the UNDP to intervene and “cause the Media council to backtrack in its campaign and first consider the concerns of the practitioners.”
The HRNJ’s coordinator also appealed to all journalists in the country not to register with the media council until the constitutional petition is decided. Haruna Kanaabi, a renowned critic of the state-controlled regulation of the media in Uganda also criticised the media council’s moves which he described at meant to instil fear among journalists.
UNDP’s spokesperson Doreen Kansiime distanced her organization from the media council’s registration exercise.
She said: “As part of its electoral support, UNDP is partnering with the Media Council on its post elections media dialogues to discuss the election coverage, experiences as well as lessons learnt. “UNDP is also using this opportunity to encourage more journalists to get into development journalism so that they can report on issues such as the Sustainable Development Goals and other key development areas highlighted in the second National Development Plan. Our goal really is to ensure that the media remains a key partner in the development of the country. Our support therefore does not extend to any other functions of the Media Council including registration of journalists.”