b) Media Freedoms
Uganda has a number of laws that promote and protect media freedoms as well as the right to access information by every citizen. Most notable of these is Article 41(1) of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda which states that every citizen has a right of access to information in the possession of the State or any other organ or agency of the State except where the release of the information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State or interfere with the right to the privacy of any other person. Article 29 (a) of the Constitution also provides for freedom of speech and expression which shall include freedom of the press and other media.
However, it appears that the same aforementioned laws have been used to criminalize the freedom of expression guaranteed under the Constitution. This is particularly the case with the Press and Journalist Act 2000. This Act was intended to professionalize journalism, creating structures and processes through which one becomes a journalist and practice journalism as a profession. However, this Act has instead been misused by authorities to criminalize the practice of journalism as was seen during this reporting period. This was seen through several cases in which the voice of the media was shut down; with several restrictions being made on who is lawfully considered a journalist. There were also instances where broadcasting licenses were revoked without the due process of law. Several journalists were arrested and tortured during the review period thus threatening the independence of journalism.
Of particular note was the shutdown of all social media platforms in Uganda;7 an act that was approved by the President of Uganda in response to Facebook’s shutdown of the official NRM accounts.8 The act was justified by the President during a presidential address made on January
- 6 The State of The Rule of Law in Uganda, Third Quarterly Report for July to September 2017
- 7 David Lumu, “Government blocks social media sites,” New Vision, January 13, 2021 at page 3
8 Available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/12/unprecedented-violence-as-uganda-gears-up-for-elections last accessed on March 12, 2021
Letter from the Uganda Communications Commission
THE STATE OF THE RULE OF LAW IN UGANDA
12, 2021 ahead of the presidential and parliamentary election.9 Social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Viber were forced to shut down; following a letter written by the Executive Director of the Uganda Communications Commission ordering all telecommunications companies to suspend any access to social media and online messaging platforms.10 This was therefore a curtail to media freedom which is a very crucial element to enable transparency elections to take place.
Furthermore, on February 17, 2021; the ULS also noted the case wherein some army officers and police officers attacked journalists who were covering an event in which the former Presidential Candidate Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu was delivering a petition to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Kololo, Kampala. 11As a result, over twenty journalists were left in clutches with others nursing wounds for the injuries they sustained in the operation
that was allegedly led by Lt. Col. Franklin Namanya. 12
A picture of Military assaulting journalists (Left - Picture by Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda) and Paul Murungi (Right) a journalist working with the New Vision newspaper at their offices after he was injured by security forces at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Kololo, Kampala.
Incidents of torturing journalists have gradually increased over time as is reported in media bulletins, like Ronald Kakooza a Vision Group reporter was roughed up and arrested at the Forum for Democratic Change Party headquarters in Najjanankumbi, Moses Bwayo a freelance journalist was shot in the face with a rubber bullet, Daniel Lutaaya and Thomas Kitimbo were attacked by unknown thugs in Lira while Saif-Ilah Ashraf, a radio one journalists were beaten and pepper sprayed by police13 and all these were covering the campaign trails of opposition politicians. Since then, no accountability has been made and efforts to reduce cases of torturing journalists have become futile. Such threats coupled with a wide range of tactics have stifled critical and independent reporting in the country.
10 “UCC orders social media shut down ahead of tense poll,” The Daily Monitor, January 12, 2021. Available at https://www.monitor. co.ug/uganda/news/national/ucc-orders-social-media-shutdown-ahead-of-tense-poll-3254532 last accessed on March 15, 2021.
11 Clare Muhindo, “Eight journalists beaten on orders of military officer at UN Human Rights office,” African Centre for Media Excellence, February 17, 2021. Available at https://acme-ug.org/2021/02/17/eight-journalists-beaten-on-orders-of-military-officer-at- un-human-rights-office last accessed on March 15, 2021.
12 Monitor Reporters, “Unmasking commander behind journalists beating,” Daily Monitor, February 19, 2021. Available at https:// www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/news/national/unmasking-commander-behind-journalists-beating--3297516 last accessed on March 15, 2020.
Under the 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. These include the fact that the restriction must be prescribed clearly and narrowly by law. The restriction must also have a genuine purpose and effect of protecting such determined interests. It must also be the least restrictive means available.
Legal issue arising:
• Whether the rights of journalists are guaranteed by the State?
- The ULS recommends for the immediate ending of the harassment, threatening and abuse of the rights of journalists. Those found culpable and guilty for these crimes should subsequently be prosecuted.
- The ULS recommends that the UPDF and Uganda Police cease from interfering in the work of journalists. The UPDF should concentrate on protecting the borders and the people of Uganda rather than interfering with the rights of citizens.
- Uganda Communications Commission acclimatizes itself with the relevant laws to avoid further arbitrary exercise of authority or power not vested in it by law.
- Due process should be followed in the event of the suspension of broadcasting licenses, media platforms and telecom companies, taking into consideration the rights of both the journalists and media owners.
Revise the structure of the Broadcasting Council and the Media Council to establish them as independent bodies that can protect the media from illegitimate government interference and promote diversity in and access to the media.