(Freedom House/IFEX) - In a letter to the President, IFEX members and four other organisations called on the government to withdraw the proposed amendment and revise other existing laws related to free expression:
President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni
On behalf of the undersigned freedom of expression and human rights organizations, we would like to express our serious concerns about the proposed amendment to the Press and Journalist Act, which we understand could be presented to the Parliament of Uganda in the near future.
If the Bill is passed as drafted it would restrict freedom of expression in Uganda and impede the ability of journalists and media outlets to fulfill their important roles by imposing unnecessarily onerous registration and licensing requirements on the printed media.
Under your leadership Uganda has made tremendous strides in enjoyment of press freedom. The decision to enshrine the right to freedom of the press and access to information in the Constitution was an important recognition of the importance of free media and freedom of expression in a democracy. Indeed, the Ugandan media have thrived under your government, scrutinizing public affairs, encouraging robust public debate, and exposing corruption and other forms of malfeasance. In that regard until recently Uganda was often cited as a good example of a vibrant media landscape in the region. The proposed Bill threatens to undo all this.
Requiring the annual licensing of newspapers by the Media Council puts undue burden on the profession and on the industry, thereby restricting the public's broader right to freedom of expression and access to information. The proposed mandate for the Council to register and license newspapers annually based on a conditional regime is most disturbing. Whereas we would not object to a simple registration process for the purpose of tracking newspapers in the country, we strongly object to licensing of newspapers. This step would create an unnecessary administrative burden and would expand the potential for political bias that already exists by the required annual licensing of journalists under the current Press and Journalist Act.
Taken with the new proposals, Uganda's legal regime would violate the basic principles of freedom of expression. It would amount to licensing the very freedoms that are guaranteed not only by Article 29 of the Ugandan Constitution, but as well as in international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19), the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights (Article 19), to which Uganda is a party. The proposed provisions also violate principle VIII of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, which provides that any registration (not licensing) system for the print media shall not impose substantive restrictions on the right to freedom of expression. It also violates Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.
In Latin America, imposing a license on the media has been a subject of litigation, with the Inter-American Court for Human Rights pronouncing licensing a violation of the fundamental right to receive and impart information.
The proposed amendments also give the Media Council sweeping powers to deny licenses to newspapers that are deemed to undermine "national security, stability, or unity," Uganda's foreign relations, and the country's economy. These are contestable constructs that would have to be defined clearly and narrowly if they are to pass the constitutional test for imposing limitations on right to freedom of expression. Giving the Media Council the absolute discretion to define those terms as a condition for renewal of a license or as a basis for penal action would make the regulator an absolute determinant of what should constitute media content. It amounts to a "substantive restriction" on freedom of expression.
Moreover, the proposed amendments seek to give the Minister of Information more control over the Media Council through appointments and policy directions. This would erode any credibility the Council enjoyed as a regulator.
Defining the technical standards for the production of news as the amendment bill proposes, amounts to excessive veering into the media industry by the government. The essence of newspapers has always been their content, not their technical standards. Press freedom cannot be the preserve of only those with "adequate technical standards".
Your Excellency, as you will recall, newspapers such as Munnansi and the Citizen played a very influential role in the 1980s for exposing violations of human rights. They were published on rudimentary technology and had there been a requirement then for "adequate technical facilities" they would never have seen the light of day.
We would also like to remind Your Excellency that several existing laws - the Electronic Media Act, the Press and Journalist Act, the Anti-Terrorism Law, and the Police Act - already contradict the government's expressed commitments to free expression. We respectfully request that you re-examine whether these laws should remain on the books.
Reports by human rights organizations including Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, among others, show that a worrying decline in press freedom in Uganda over the past five years has been accompanied by a rise in self-censorship and attacks on journalists. We respectfully ask Your Excellency to take steps to address these issues and lead the way in protecting and promoting the essential human right to freedom of expression by ensuring the journalists are able to freely practice their profession. A first step would be to withdraw the proposed amendment to the Press and Journalist Act, followed by revisions of the existing laws to bring them into conformity with the Ugandan Constitution and international standards.
We are confident that you and your government will give due diligence to the protection of the right to free expression and a free press. We respectfully request that you retract the amendment to the Press and Journalist Bill as a signal of your commitment to free and fair elections and to fundamental human rights.
Adil Soz - International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
Association of Caribbean Media Workers
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International
Center for Media Studies & Peace Building
Ethiopian Freepress Journalists' Association
Exiled Journalists Network
Globe International Center
Hong Kong Journalists Association
Human Rights Network for Journalists - Uganda
Independent Journalism Center - Moldova
Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety
Institute of Mass Information
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
Media Foundation for West Africa
Media Institute of Southern Africa
National Union of Somali Journalists
Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF)
Pacific Islands News Association
Pakistan Press Foundation
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms - MADA
Public Association "Journalists"
Southeast Asian Press Alliance
Thai Journalists Association
Non-IFEX member signatories:
African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME)
Eastern Africa Journalists Association (EAJA)
Federation of African Journalists (FAJ)
Ugandan Journalists Union (UJU)