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Uganda Communications Commission directive threatens election reporting

A newspaper vendor sells copies of a local newspaper in Kampala, 18 February 2011
A newspaper vendor sells copies of a local newspaper in Kampala, 18 February 2011

AP Photo/ Michele Sibiloni

A directive issued to all broadcasters by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) poses a serious threat to freedom of expression and the media, as it attempts to restrict journalists' ability to report freely on the upcoming presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections in Uganda.

“As a media rights organization, we believe that this is a bold step by UCC solely intended to gag the media and compromise its independence ahead of the upcoming political developments in the country,” observed the HRNJ-Uganda National Coordinator, Robert Ssempala.

Freedom of expression and the media is a fundamental right enshrined in article 29 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, and therefore not the duty of an individual or such a body like UCC to decide how the beneficiaries of the same should enjoy it.

On July 8th, the Executive Director of the UCC, Eng. Godfrey Mutabazi, issued a one-page document warning all broadcasters in Uganda against what he termed as “negative and unprofessional trends such as lack of balance, sensationalism, incitement, abusive language and relying on unauthorized and unreliable sources of information.” The document does not state justification for such a warning to the media at this critical juncture when its independence is most paramount.

According to the document, the directive is based on Section 31 of the Uganda Communications Commissions Act. This particular section however, does not refer to authorized sources, or restrict the sources journalists may use. It should be understood that the said section was quoted out of context.

Eng. Mutabazi should clarify to the media what he means by “negative and unprofessional trends” and “unauthorized and unreliable sources of information” which he alludes to in the document. We believe that Eng. Mutabazi is acting irregularly in trying to usurp the powers to control and direct the public and the media in particular, on how to enjoy their right to free speech and expression.

Although freedom of expression is not an absolute right, any limitations on this right must be necessary, proportionate, and justifiable in a free and democratic society. This directive is unnecessary, disproportionate, and unjustifiable in a free and democratic society. In the run up to the 2016 general elections, Ugandans should be left to use the media without undue restrictions, or unnecessary interference, in order for them to receive and disseminate information which would result into them making informed decisions regarding their leaders.

HRNJ-Uganda therefore calls on the UCC to desist from becoming an obstacle to Ugandans as they aspire to access information which is a key tenet of choosing the leadership they want. Instead, the UCC should facilitate the free flow of information, ideas, opinions, and public debate, however extreme they may be.

“As we struggle to advocate for a free, critical and professional media, we appeal to all broadcasters to disregard UCC's directive as it is devoid of legal merit and its intent is to stifle debate on matters of national importance and public interest. [The] UCC should take center stage in promoting a free and strong media rather that masterminding inhibitions to its detriment,” said HRNJ-Uganda's national coordinator, Robert Ssempala.

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