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IPI says media bill fails to live up to international press freedom standards

UPDATE: Government to table restrictive Press And Journalist Amendment Bill (HRNJ-Uganda, 2 July 2012)

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, 23 March 2010 - An amendment to the Ugandan Press and Journalist Law presently before the Ugandan cabinet contains a number of deeply troubling provisions that, if made into law, would severely inhibit the media environment and do considerable damage to the reputation of Uganda in the eyes of the international community.

The Press and Journalist (Amendment) Bill 2010 contains wide-ranging and ill-defined powers enabling the authorities to revoke the licence of a media organisation if it publishes material deemed to be "prejudicial to national security, stability and unity," or which is "injurious to Ugandan relations with new neighbours or friendly countries;" causes "economic sabotage" or breaches any of the conditions imposed by the licence."

There are also strict rules on registration that threaten to overburden media organisations with unnecessary bureaucracy. As an example, under the amendment bill, media organisations are forced to re-apply for a licence every year. This provision will have a deeply damaging impact on the editorial independence of the media organisations and may lead to self-censorship and the taming of content as the renewal date of the licence draws closer.

Such legislation is redundant in a modern media environment and it flies in the face of international standards. These standards call for a registration process that is purely administrative in nature and which is not bureaucratic or burdensome to the licence holder. It should not be used to influence content or as a means to pressure or intimidate the media organisation.

Elsewhere, the Bill seeks to limit the involvement of foreign media in the print industry. Given the regional and global nature of the modern media, it is difficult not to view this as an insular attempt to ensure that the government retains a high degree of control over local media and their funding sources.

Foreign funding of local media is often essential to enable support and growth and can help to secure a strong and independent media.

"Despite assurances by the Ugandan government that the proposals are harmless and that they will enhance media freedom, a recent government clampdown on independent FM radio stations suggests a well planned campaign to stifle the media ahead of next year's General Election," said Kenyan IPI board member Wangethi Mwangi.

"Overzealous bureaucracy, inhibitions on foreign funding, ill-defined concepts of 'stability' and 'unity,' fines and imprisonment terms all create the perception that this is an autocratic and invasive media bill that, if passed into law, damages freedom of the press in Uganda," said IPI Director David Dadge.

"The Ugandan government should return this media bill for discussion among the media and civil society. It is difficult to understand how this law, in its present form, will enable the Ugandan media to perform its fundamental role of holding government to account and providing the public with information."

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