A Ugandan photo-journalist, James Akena, was brutalized and maimed to wheelchair by soldiers while covering riots in Kampala.

Media freedom in Uganda continues to decline, in comparison to the neighboring countries within the East African region and its previous rankings. Uganda is now ranked 132 out of 180 countries globally according the 2022 Global Press Index by Journalism watchdog – Reporters Without Borders.

Uganda’s current position represents a drastic decline from 125 in 180 countries in 2019, with concerns for the right to freedom of expression in the country. Within the region, only Rwanda is ranked lower than Uganda in the 136th position, while Kenya tops regional rankings at 69th position in the world. Kenya is followed by Burundi at 107th, Tanzania at 123rd, the DRC at 125th and South Sudan at 128th position. Meaning that Rwanda aside, nowhere in East Africa is media freedoms under threat as it is in Uganda.

Declining media freedoms in Uganda is attributable to many factors, one of those being the ever-present threat by the State actors, the police and army being the first culprits and intimidation by President Museveni . The crushing effects of over regulation by the Uganda Communications Commission has also not settled well with the right to freedom of expression and media in Uganda.

As is the norm, State interferences on press freedoms was overtly manifested in the 2021 general elections, where Journalists were victims of violent attacks and surveillance by the State. Reflecting on challenges journalists in Uganda are faced with, in light of this year’s commemoration of the World Press Freedom Day, it is instructive to note that threats to media freedoms in Uganda have remained consistent, even as the media undergoes technological upheavals.

This worrying trend has attracted diverse attention from different actors. In 2019, in an interview for Our Parliament radio show, Hon. Semujju Nganda, the Opposition Chief Whip in the 10th Parliament revealed that he raised the matter of declining media freedoms on the floor of Parliament due to the worrying trend of State interference;

“The government institutions including UCC want to supplement the efforts of the ruling party to stay in power. So police will be clobbering journalists and UCC will be issuing very restrictive orders. The aim of these orders is to shield the ruling party from competition. Even when you ask UCC and the government to explain, there is no way you can go into a newsroom and demand that so and so be the editor so you have outrightly people whose attitude towards the media is very bad.” Ssemujju commented. 

According to the Parliamentary Rules of Procedure, specifically Rule 24(2k), the business of Parliament outlined on the order paper provides for Members to make statements on a matter of public importance. Hon. Semujju Nganda who had worked as a journalist prior to being a legislator, raised the matter of declining media freedoms on May 2 2019, immediately meriting media attention due to its timeliness – a day in advance of World Press Freedom Day in 2019.

The media landscape in Uganda according to the 2022 Global Press Freedom Index, is characterized by media ownership that is largely dominated by members and the supporters of the NRM. This pattern of ownership has a bearing on media plurality, diversity, access and editorial independence for journalists;

“You must understand the media and why people start media platforms. We had a newspaper here called The People for Uganda Peoples Congress. Did you want the Uganda Peoples Congress to promote NRM?!  There are newspapers that are going to be biased and radio stations that are going to be biased and that is okay. But there are also professional platforms whose duty is to be professional. So don’t worry that there are newspapers that are biased. You should be worried that there are no other platforms that are going to give everybody a voice,“ Hon. Ssemujju said.

 What Parliament is doing beyond raising the issue:

The last time I raised this matter, we agreed as Parliament that the Minister of Information will come to account and we also suggested that UCC reverses those draconian directives. I read that they had reversed them.” Hon. Ssemujju during interview, adding that: “the Minister hasn’t tabled a statement. We will debate the Minister’s statement and make recommendations.”

Media reports of State interventions to stifle press freedoms in Uganda is quite telling. Despite greater promises of liberty offered by technological innovation, these new media platforms have now become fresh targets for regulatory control. The matter came up in 2019 in an interview with Moses Watasa, the Commissioner Communication and Information Dissemination at the Ministry of Information, Communications Technology and National Guidance.

He said: “The President launched the extension of the internet to West Nile and Kitgum. That cannot be a government that is seeking to restrict communication because we are extending the National Backbone Infrastructure so people can use the internet.”

The government’s infrastructure investment means at least in theory, that there is an increased access to the internet and new media in underserved communities. However this is – in equal terms, undermined by heavy handed regulation by UCC among other interventions by the State. 

It is not the State but elements within State. We had meetings with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Security, the IGP, the CDF; we spoke through these things and we were asking, can’t we resolve these cases where individual policemen or soldiers rough-up journalists? They were saying this was regrettable and remember, the CDF and IGP went to the Uganda Media Centre and issued an apology. UCC went overboard possibly, but the beauty of Uganda is that we have redress mechanisms,” Watasa claimed in defense of the commission.

Another common feature of public discourse regarding media freedoms in Uganda, is the allegation levelled against journalists of “abuse” of media freedoms, therefore justifying state intervention to regulate this right. Moses Watasa goes on to rehash justification for heavy handed regulation by UCC, as being done to enforce standards, attacking the unethical practice of bribery from sources.

“The media itself is not perfect. There are journalists who pick money from sources. As a Ministry, we prefer to counsel and train them. The media in Uganda is still young, it’s not like other professions, even though there are many people practicing. But if you went by the Press and Journalism Act and its definition of a journalist, we would have to send many of them home,” Watasa said. However, this remains a contentious issues as freedom of expression is not just a preserve of journalists, but a universal right for everyone, driven especially by the recent proliferation in citizen journalism.

Among the many proposals made in the Press Freedom Index by the Human Rights Network – HRNJ-U in their 2021 report, a case is made for media self-regulation as the best alternative to regulation by the State. Self-regulation of the media industry through professional bodies, associations, in-house editorial policies and codes of conduct; a practice that is is internationally commended for its self-correcting mechanism, promotes media freedoms, credibility and public trust. Without state interference with media independence that would undermine media’s ability to call for accountability.

Part of the proposals that had been made by the UCC, was giving accreditation and license to “professional” journalists, that would be renewable annually. The HRNJ-U report denotes that accreditation of journalists should be left alone to the media fraternity, as is the practice in democracies around the world. 

In a 2019 interview with HRNJ-U, Robert Sempala the Executive Director expressed the view that UCC’s adversarial approach to regulation constraints media freedom in Uganda.

“We think that UCC is not on track, we think that it is usurping powers of other bodies, we also think that it is restricting and controlling the media. It is supposed to regulate media to grow and not be seen to curtail media freedom. It is what it is actually doing on a day to day basis. We only have heard so much about UCC when it is moving against the media, we have not seen UCC’s presence especially where we need to professionalize or when we need to grow the media or where we need to fight impunity.” He noted.

Reflecting on the state of media freedoms in Uganda in 2022 in relation to 2019, there is evidence that State actors remain among  the biggest threats to media freedoms. This is primarily through intimidation, violence and over regulation that stymies media freedom. In response, the media continues to insist on self regulation even as engagements with institutions such as Parliament are yet to yield remedies that would ensure accountability for abuses of the rights of journalists.  


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