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Focus On: Uganda

Since 2009 Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda has documented more than 300 journalists who have been subjected to different forms of violence with impunity.

Focus On: Uganda

HRNJ’s Geoffrey Ssebaggala tells us more.

Uganda has over 200 licensed radio stations-both local and community radios, over forty licensed TV stations, and over sixty newspapers. The main source of information for the people is through the broadcast media, mainly the local radios and national television. Newspapers are mostly accessed in the townships, where people can afford to buy a copy.

The number of media outlets has been growing in size since 1993 when the media industry was liberalised. Today many media houses in Uganda run as businesses, not platforms for expression. Business interests have compromised the independence of Ugandan media to the extent that every issue is approached from profit angle. The government is a major advertiser and the media is largely owned by pro-government supporters, plus a few religious groups, so objective reporting is rare.

The relationship with the Government and the media has deteriorated and the government is cracking down on critical media and journalists who are engaged in investigative reporting on issues of governance and accountability. This has seen a number of media houses closed down and journalists arrested and detained on trumped up charges, most of which have been dismissed by the courts of law. The Government claims that coverage on these topics incites the public and claims a free and critical media would be anti-government.

The Government set up Media Crimes Desks within the Political and Crimes Department, which sits within the Criminal Investigations Department. Through its body the Uganda Communications Commission, the Government also accesses recordings of all current affairs programs to monitor the performance of given media houses in regards to critical broadcasting. The Government has infiltrated the media outlets by planting journalists to spy on fellow colleagues as they do their work.

A number of laws are being used against journalists and of late the legal regime being used against the media has widened to bring in laws that are not related to free speech or expression. Such laws include forgery and incitement to violence among others. However, press freedom laws commonly used against journalists include criminal libel, defamation, a law on promoting sectarianism and other laws in the Penal Code, the Press and Journalist Act and the Interception of Communications Act.

A number of critical journalists have lost their jobs on the orders of the Government. Others have been kidnapped and detained incommunicado, summoned and questioned at police stations, charged in court, arrested and detained over stories published or broadcasted. Media houses have been arbitrarily closed and licenses revoked.

The result of this unfavourable environment is that the journalism profession in Uganda suffers from a high turnover of staff. This deprives the profession and Ugandans of the expertise needed for a professional media, thereby denying the people of Uganda the ability to be informed by skilled reporters. The media also self-censors, leaving citizens unable to access vital information on key national governance and accountability issues and denying them an opportunity to make informed decisions.

Awareness is being raised about these challenges. HRNJ-Uganda offers a range of support services to journalists, provides training to journalists and media managers, undertakes research and advocacy work and monitors the number of attacks on journalists. Many journalists have received legal support and compensation, Parliament has debated attacks on journalists and tasked police to explain the actions before their budgets could be approved and Uganda now has a data base for journalists attacked every year. However, with 40 attacks on journalists already recorded in 2013 alone there is still a long way to go before journalists can work without fear of attack or intimidation.

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