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Legislators prevent media from accessing Parliament with video and still cameras, electronic recorders

(HRNJ-Uganda/IFEX) - Kampala, 19 March 2012 - Ugandan journalists who cover parliamentary news have blacklisted members of parliament (MPs) who argued against a proposal to allow the media to cover debates in the House with their video and still cameras and electronic recorders. The targeted MPs include Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), NRM MP for Iganga District Olivia Kwagala Kabala and Bukooli North NRM MP Bakka Mugabi.

During a debate on Parliamentary Rules of Procedure last week, MPs voted to block the media from accessing the House during plenary sessions with video and still cameras, as well as electronic recorders. Usually journalists deposit their mobile phones at the reception before accessing the Parliament chambers. Journalists are not allowed to carry laptops, note-pads, recorders, still or video cameras into the gallery from which they listen to the proceedings.

The matter was voted on and rejected.

The journalists, under their umbrella body Uganda Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA), had asked the Rules and Privileges Committee to allow the media to carry along their electronic gadgets into the House to capture MPs' debates, in order to avoid misquotations and possible defamation.

UPPA, which is comprised of over 90 members from different media houses, termed the targeted MPs as "enemies" to the journalists who therefore needed to be treated as such. They accused Kwagala and Bakka of resisting the proposal, while Oulanyah was accused of exhibiting bias as he presided over the debate and shot down the argument that the media was free to access information by way of the Access To Information Act. He said that the law talks only about information in possession of government.

The failed proposal was tabled by the chairman of the parliamentary committee on Rules, Privileges and Discipline, Fox Odoi (Independent), as the House revised the rules of procedure which guide Parliament's business. He argued that given technological advances, an amendment be made to allow members of the UPPA to access the gallery with their gadgets, to enable them to report more accurately and in a timely manner.

The House also voted to reject a proposal to allow the media access to the Appointments Committee that vets presidential nominees, which would enable journalists to cover the vetting process of this committee, which is chaired by Speaker Rebecca Kadaga.

UPPA President Agnes Nandutu told a press conference at Parliament that association members had resolved to blacklist the MPs who engineered the rejection of the media-friendly proposal because they were the "enemies of media freedom."

"It was very unfortunate that the proposal was blocked. This is very unfortunate but we are going to consult legal minds, do more research and appeal the decision. These MPs acted selfishly, allowing themselves to use gadgets and preventing us from covering the proceedings with gadgets inside the House chambers. We shall work on the two MPs accordingly," Nandutu stressed.

In a bid to have the decision reconsidered, the journalists have done intensive lobbying with a cross-section of Parliament, including meeting with the chairman of the NRM parliamentary caucus David Bahati, NRM Chief Whip Daudi Migereko, Fox Odoi, Oulanyah and Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, among others.

UPPA Chief Whip Expedito Ssebayiga told Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) that enough mobilization has been made ahead of the parliamentary seating on Tuesday 20 March 2012 to have the proposal reintroduced and considered more objectively.

"We have lobbied MPs and their respective leaders to re-commit this particular provision on the media and grant our requests. We are not asking anything from the ordinary, but just to enable us do our work better," he said.

"HRNJ-Uganda commends the UPPA leadership for taking a firm stance on media freedom. Parliament conducts work on behalf of the voters to whom it must remain accountable, and this can only be done by the media, who are the eyes and ears of voters. We therefore call upon the MPs to reconsider the proposal and pass it, in order to bring the Parliament closer to the voters, who can only follow it through the media. The 9th Parliament should stand to be counted in the promotion of media freedom," observed HRNJ-Uganda Programme Coordinator Wokulira Ssebaggala.

HRNJ-Uganda urges Parliament to vote on the matter by a show of hands so that it is clear as to who votes to block the media from freely carrying out its duties.

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