The State of Journalism in Uganda

He was down on his knees, camera firmly held in his right hand and a black bag on his back. Four soldiers, holding sticks, had surrounded him, and were taking turns kicking him. The Reuters journalist, James Akena, had committed one crime: taking pictures during a riot in Kampala city. After the gruesome incident, Akena ended up in the hospital, nursing injuries, including a major one on the head.

Akena is not alone. Many journalists have been targeted by security operatives in Uganda, particularly during protests.

In August, police and military officials used bullets, tear gas and sticks to disperse people protesting the detention of opposition Members of Parliament, following a heated race to replace the Arua municipality Member of Parliament, Ibrahim Abiriga. He himself was gunned down a few meters from his home in the outskirts of Kampala, the capital city. 

Sadly, the journalists covering the last campaign rallies for different candidates in Uganda and the violence that ensued, were not spared when it came to authorities taking force in dispersing the crowds.

Another journalist, Alfred Ocwo, was taking photos when one soldier called out to him. 

“I walked towards them and then it happened. I recall being hit so hard across the forehead and being dragged to one of the patrol trucks. I was beaten and forced under the pickup where I found other journalists. Two soldiers sat on us and started pinching us with a pair of pliers,” he said.

Many other journalists were arrested and their equipment taken. Upon arrival at the police station, they were commanded to delete any pictures and footage that they had.

The 2017 press freedom index puts the police at the forefront of tormenting journalists and it’s not expected to change in 2018.

Police spokesperson, Emilian Kayima, asked journalists to give details of colleagues who had been tortured during the protest. Sadly, that does not guarantee that journalists will not be attacked in the future. This is not the first time police and the military have apologized over similar incidents.

Uganda People’s Defense Force spokesperson Brig. Richard Karemire said similar things in the following statement:

Attention has been brought to the leadership of the UPDF about the unprofessional conduct of soldiers who molested some journalists while deployed on a joint operation in the capital city on Monday, August 20, 2018. UPDF wishes to express its displeasure over such behavior, and as a result, the Chief of Defense Forces has ordered for their arrest and punishment.

While expressing apologies and sympathies to the individuals on whom pain was inflicted, we wish to reiterate our strong commitment to maintain a strong partnership with the media fraternity in the course of executing all our core functions as laid out in the Constitution.

In addition to the violence towards journalists, government censorship holds back freedom of the press, as well.For example, when the recent protests about detention of opposition members of Parliament took place, television stations that are known for broadcasting live events were let in only upon the suggestion that they would not broadcast.

Financial pressures are also to blame. Large companies have a big say in the content published or broadcast. Since many of them are bit advertisers, they have the ability to block stories or twist them in their favor. 

Lack of ethics is also to blame. Among the journalists are “bad apples” who thrive on taking bribes from the public. Sadly, this is not only the foot soldiers and editors, but chief executive officers who are greatly compromised by inducements from people who want their wrongdoings hidden from the public. In Uganda, there are media houses that have born the brunt of such a practice, although most times this is never brought to light.

Robert Ssempala, the executive director of a human rights network for journalists, says the state agencies in Uganda use laws to limit freedom of journalism by using criminal charges to stop them from reporting stories.

“These laws are drafted in a way that is wide and can be invoked against anyone. Many journalists may not write or follow up stories that critique government for fear of being victimized using these laws,” he said.

Despite the challenges, there has been remarkable development of the media in the last 20 years. 

The government of Uganda liberalized the media, which saw the entrance of private media to supplement what the state-owned media houses were doing. There are now over 30 privately owned television stations and over 120 privately owned radio stations, as well as six print newspapers and many online publications.

In addition, the first course to train journalists at graduate level was started in the late 1980s at Makerere University in Kampala. Since then, a number of other institutions came up to train journalists. The journalists enjoy a degree of freedom to write or broadcast everything except for the the restricted information in government institutions. There is a legislation in place to be able to access that information, but this has not been yet realized.

The existence of many media outlets has enabled the media to diversify or pick special audiences to serve. For example, although Muslims are covered by the major newspapers and radio stations, they also have their own media outlets. Leading dailies such as New Vision and Daily Monitor have special sections for Muslims on Fridays and for Christians on Sundays. The TV stations have similar arrangements.

However, only the major religious groups such as Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists are covered. There are still smaller religious groups, such as Jehovah’s witnesses and Latter day saints, who remain barely covered.

What can set it free?

I believe he challenges highlighted above will have an even greater impact in the practice of journalism in Uganda if they are not addressed. The responsibility change this situation rests on the journalists themselves. The government will likely never see it in their best interest to set the press free, but the journalists have the duty to serve the public. Therefore, the need for a stronger, concerted voice against abuse by government agencies must remain stronger than the opposition. If all the journalists join hands and speak with one voice, I believe the government will eventually listen and that a few indisciplined government or security officials will be exposed.

That being said, the journalists and the media houses should first clean house. They need to act professionally and avoid situations that compromise their editorial policy or independence, whether for financial or political gain. The stories should still come out the way they are supposed to be and with integrity. The journalism should reflect the public’s needs, by articulating the concerns for the common good, and recruiting the public on their side in cases of abuse or attack by those in authority. 

Some journalists or heads of media houses fall prey to compromising situations partly because they were not professionally groomed into journalism to understand the tenets and responsibilities or burdens they carry. Some of them come to journalism for business or due to limited employment opportunities.

Therefore, further training and mentoring would do much to introduce and harness the main principles of journalism and give a wider view of journalism as a profession that must be cherished and protected. 

Interactions with journalists from all over the world and membership to international bodies such as International Federation of Journalists may give the journalists and media houses a stronger voice in protecting their freedom at an international forum. This is my hope for Uganda.