Journalists must be safe to play democracy role
12 Aug 20120 comments
The media in Uganda has gone through some very horrendous experiences in the recent past.
But none has been more menacing than the constant threats and real physical attacks, intimidations, harassment and kidnaps. Almost every other day, there are media reports of journalists being summoned to record statements, being physically assaulted, harassed, kidnapped, having their tools of trade destroyed or confiscated, etc, by both state and non state actors –including churches.
In the last six months alone, the Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda (HRNJ) has recorded over 50 cases of assault against journalists, with over 100 recorded last year, with journalists working in both the state owned/controlled and privately owned media houses falling victims.
Like any other citizen, journalists have a right to protection from, and prevention of, these attacks. But also, the state has a duty to thoroughly investigate the reported cases of abuse and violations of these rights to their logical conclusions. Unfortunately, these attacks have continued, and of the reported cases, not a single culprit has been apprehended. This level of impunity has ended up undermining independent journalism, freedom of expression and the free flow of information to the public.
What we should note is that the right to freedom of expression and information as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Human and People’s Rights (ICCPR), article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) as well as article 29 of the Uganda Constitution are not just meant for the journalists and/or the media; it is also a fundamental right for every individual, which must be protected as a cornerstone of democracy.
Justice Joseph Mulenga could not have put it better in his 2004 landmark ruling in the constitutional appeal No 2 of 2002 between Charles Onyango-Obbo and Andrew Mujuni Mwenda (appellants) vs. Attorney General (respondent) when he stated that: “…the protection of the right to freedom of expression is of great significance to democracy. It is the bedrock of democratic governance.”
Journalists in Uganda continue to operate in fear, not only of the people who are supposed to protect them, but also the public they are supposed to serve. Caught in a tight spot, many have decided to jump ship, while many of those who have remained have opted not to engage themselves in critical and thorough investigative reporting. The few who still do are getting fatigued and also losing interest.
Reports show that there are more cases of self-censorship reported in newsrooms today than at any other time in the last 6 years. This is a worrying trend for a country that is soon celebrating 50 years of “independence” this year. At 50 years, the country should be boasting of a free media that is able to effectively fulfill the roles of watchdog, gatekeeper and agenda-setter that can improve governance through raising citizen awareness of social issues, enabling citizens to hold their governments to account, curbing corruption, and creating a civic forum for debate.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Not until the media is free to carry out her mandate unhindered, and the journalists able to operate responsibly in a safe and secure environment without fear, shall we then talk of true democracy. It is not enough to have hundreds of “watchdogs” that cannot even bite.
Originally printed in The Observer >