Monday, May 03, 2010

Freedom of Speech: Uganda - If you stick to real issues, you may not remain in the profession. You'll be in danger

Source: Human Rights Watch (HRW) - The media today in Uganda is more like public relations reporting. If you stick to real issues, you may not remain in the profession. You'll be in danger.

‒Radio journalist in Hoima district

Journalists are not free to do their jobs. In most cases, they really have the information. They have done investigations, have the documents, but then they sit on it. If it relates to [local government people] or a minister, even when they have the proof to pin down the person, the radio stations will sit on it, because they fear the consequences.

‒Radio journalist in Fort Portal district

I'm a journalist. I have to inform people what is going on, but if you deny me that right, it's like you're forcing me to go astray … We're not free to report as we should anymore.

‒Radio journalist in Masaka district

As Uganda plans for general elections in 2011, freedom of expression across the country is in significant jeopardy. On a superficial level, Ugandan media seem to enjoy considerable latitude, especially those based in Kampala, which regularly carry a range of opinions, including occasional criticism of government policies. In reality, however, as Human Rights Watch has found, genuinely free and independent journalism is under threat, particularly outside the capital. The government deploys a wide range of tactics to stifle critical reporting, from occasional physical violence to threats, harassment, bureaucratic interference, and criminal charges. Increasing use of these tactics during the political unrest in September 2009, and in the run-up to the February 2011 vote, threatens to fatally undermine media freedoms necessary for a free and fair election.

Uganda has notionally had open multiparty politics since 2005, after 19 years of de facto one-party rule under the National Resistance Movement (NRM), led by President Yoweri Museveni who took power in 1986. Political parties now actively vie for public support, hold rallies, and promote candidates for public office. But this process of opening up political space has been extremely uneven in practice and has resulted in increasingly arbitrary state attacks on the media as the ruling party faces more and more public and open criticism. Since the previous political campaigns in 2005, at least 40 criminal charges have been levied against journalists and talk show panelists.

This report shows that since 2005, attempts by Ugandan journalists to conduct independent political reporting and analysis in print and on radio have been met by increasing government threats, intimidation, and harassment. Human Rights Watch conducted more than 90 interviews over the course of nine months in 2009 and early 2010 that document the aggressive and arbitrary nature of state responses to criticism of the central government and the ruling NRM party. In some cases, these threats are overt, such as public statements by a resident district commissioner that a journalist should be "eliminated," or a police summons on charges of sedition, incitement to violence, or promoting sectarianism for criticizing government action in a newspaper article. In many more cases, the threats are covert, such as phone calls—some anonymous and others from well-known ruling party operatives—intimating violence or loss of employment if a journalist pursues a certain issue or story.

Some journalists cope by steering clear of any reporting that may attract government attention or sanction, succumbing to the chilling effect of harassment. Self-censorship is especially prevalent among radio station reporters and talk show hosts based outside Kampala who broadcast in Uganda's local languages in districts where legal protections and international scrutiny are the most lacking. The hesitation of those reporters to address sensitive political issues has a particularly pronounced effect on Ugandans' access to information about key issues in the lead-up to the elections, as most still get their news and information from local language radio.

The Ugandan government uses its national laws to bring charges against journalists, restrict the number of people who can lawfully be journalists, revoke broadcasting licenses without due process of law, and practice other forms of repression. Similar laws and procedures exist in other countries, but in Uganda, the government uses the laws in partisan ways to create a minefield for media owners and reporters who speak or write about issues that the government deems politically sensitive or controversial. Several government-controlled bodies, including the Broadcasting Council, the Media Council, and the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) wield broad, ill-defined, and unchecked powers to regulate the media. Many of the sanctions they levy have been determined to be in violation of freedom of expression by international experts.

These kinds of restrictions—on both media outlets and individual journalists—were fully on view in September 2009, when Uganda experienced two days of rioting. Government troops responded to rioters throwing stones, blocking roads and lighting debris on fire with excessive lethal force, resulting in the deaths of at least 40 people. The riots occurred when the NRM government instructed state agencies to block the visit of a cultural leader of Uganda's largest ethnic group, the Baganda, from visiting an area that was historically part of his kingdom. Luganda-speaking radio stations voiced support for the Buganda cultural leader and encouraged listeners to show that support by traveling to the area during the planned visit.

In response, the NRM-controlled regulatory body governing radio in Uganda, the Broadcasting Council, suspended the licenses of three Luganda-speaking stations and withdrew the license of another, Central Broadcasting Station (CBS)—all without notice or a prior court order. Police and soldiers threatened journalists trying to photograph and report on the unfolding events. In the wake of the riots, the Broadcasting Council also pressured these and other stations to suspend specific journalists whom the Council deemed had "incited violence." The Council officially banned any open-air broadcasting—a very popular forum for public debate in local communities, known as bimeeza in Luganda—in the country on any topic. CBS remained off air at the time of writing, while the other three stations have informally negotiated with authorities to return to the airwaves.

The government-sanctioned media clampdown during and after the September riots and the criminal charges levied against numerous print journalists appear to have led local government officials and NRM party operatives to believe they should take similar action. Human Rights Watch research found that journalists based in rural districts are increasingly subjected to intimidation, threats, charges, and, to a lesser extent, physical attacks while trying to report on local political matters.

Rural radio journalists, in particular, have been targets of serious and repeated threats to their lives and their jobs. The perpetrators are often pro-NRM government officials—especially resident district commissioners who represent the President's office at the district level—or police and intelligence officials who are retaliating against criticism or reporting on official misconduct, such as alleged corruption, mismanagement, or human rights violations. In many instances, when threatening reporters, local government officials specifically referred to what happened in Kampala during the riots as evidence of the power of the state to stop negative reporting. Because local government officials are perceived to be closely aligned with police, instances of threats and intimidation have gone largely unreported and without proper investigation or prosecution. When instances have been made public, no investigation has taken place.

Several of Uganda's national laws are inconsistent with its obligations under international law and its constitution, and the government exploits vagueness in national laws to suppress critical appraisals. It does so by charging journalists with crimes and granting media regulatory bodies broad powers to restrain speech through the revocation of licenses. Under international human rights law, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), governments are allowed to restrict speech in specific instances to protect narrowly determined interests, such as national security or public morals. However, such restrictions must meet several high hurdles. First, the restriction must be prescribed clearly and narrowly by law; second, it must have the genuine purpose and effect of protecting such interests; and third, it must be the least restrictive means available.[1] Ugandan laws criminalizing certain types of speech are overly vague and broad, which makes even innocuous public statements open to criminalization. For example, the crime of "promoting sectarianism," is defined as "any act which is likely to … promote … feelings of ill will or hostility among or against any ethnic group or body of persons on account of religion, tribe or ethnic or regional origin."

Ugandan government authorities use these laws not to safeguard national security, but rather to stifle speech. For example, a reporter in Gulu district was charged with criminal libel for writing an article on public allegations of corruption by a deputy resident district commissioner, despite the fact that the reporter sought comment from the commissioner himself and then quoted him in the article. Another journalist was charged with sedition for commenting on radio that President Museveni had a "poor quality upbringing."

According to international standards as set out by the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, adopted by a group of experts in international law, national security, and human rights and endorsed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, governments should permit and tolerate these types of speech. Both international and African standards on freedom of expression, including rulings by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, recognize that the threshold for restricting criticism of public officials, who are accountable to citizens, is higher than for private individuals.

Human Rights Watch recommends that Ugandan government officials and ruling party members immediately end harassment, threats, and abuse of journalists. Government officials, particularly the president and the ministers of information and security, should publicly condemn threats to the media and insist that local officials tolerate independent reporting in local languages. Police and prosecutors should investigate and prosecute incidents of threats, harassment, and intimidation of journalists. The government should also repeal or amend its laws to bring them into line with their international obligations and the rights enshrined in Uganda's constitution. The statutes of the various media regulatory bodies should also be amended without delay to ensure that the bodies can act independently, without inappropriate government interference. Any suspension of broadcasting licenses must be carried out with regard to the due process rights of both journalists and media owners, including requiring police or the regulatory bodies to present evidence of criminal activity before a court of law before preventing any speech.

The Ministry of Information has stated that draft amendments to the Press and Journalist Act will shortly be before cabinet. In the January 2010 draft—leaked allegedly by government sources to civil society—instead of bringing Ugandan law into line with international norms, the amendments seek to impose further restrictions on free expression, extending to print media the arbitrary and overly burdensome regulations that now govern broadcast media. For example, the Media Council would be empowered to deny licenses based on its assessment of the newspaper's "values." Heads of media houses would also be subject to broader criminal liability through the creation of new crimes. The amendments must be scrutinized against the three-part test as set out in international norms requiring that any restriction on speech first be narrowly prescribed in law, second, that it be levied for a genuine and permissible reason, and third, that the least restrictive means possible be utilized.

Candidates have begun informal campaigning for Uganda's 2011 elections. At the same time, the government's harassment and intimidation of the independent media's political programming is also increasing. Opposition presidential candidate Dr. Kizza Besigye and other opposition candidates allege that they have had difficulty getting airtime on rural radio stations, and some radio talk show hosts state they are not permitted by station owners or managers to host some opposition members. For free, fair, and credible elections to take place in 2011, the government should protect freedom of expression and refrain from harassing or targeting critical journalists or media outlets at both the national and local levels.

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