By: Yossa Immaculate Daisy-Uganda
Article 19 of the UDHR states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. The ICCPR correspondingly reiterates the same in article 19 although in paragraph 3 it is mentioned of how this particular right carries with it special duties and responsibilities where it may therefore be subject to certain restrictions although shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary for:
- Respect of rights or reputations of others;
- For the protection of national security or of public order or morals.
While I am certain the people behind these rights meant well, I fear it is these very restrictions provided for that could be abused especially by governments in young democracies like Uganda to meet their ends especially regarding freedoms related to information and expression through media.
The government three weeks ago tabled a bill which once passed into law would give the state legal powers to influence the content of what is aired and transmitted by all media houses. The new bill is intended to regulate broadcasting, telecommunication and postal service providers by creating a new body called the Uganda Communication Regulatory Body which in effect will disband the currently existing Uganda Communication Commission and broadcasting council. The proposed law would go a step further to tighten the process of acquiring licenses for radio and television operators. But more worrying for the state of media freedom in the country is the intention to hand to the government the power to control the operations of broadcast houses; for instance, for one to obtain a licence the bill sets a condition for the “provision of service on priority service to the government or specified organisation”. What this means is that government will make it a requirement that any broadcast house publishes its propaganda material or that of allied agencies as and when it deems fit. Another issue included in the bill is one related to prohibiting the publication of material which infringes on the privacy of any individual or which contains false information. The question which ensues is; what happens when “privacy” becomes an issue of public concern? The issue of slipping in a clause of false information and privacy has been often used by officials the broadcast council said and wealthy businessmen to silence critical reporting which could actually be true.
In 2004, the Supreme Court struck down the law against publication of false news, declaring it unconstitutional following a protracted appeal by two local journalists. The bill also hands down a fine of about 2 million Uganda shillings or a four year jail term upon conviction for anyone who intercepts government communication. While the proposal is silent about email communication, it worries journalists who for instance may report a story from a source who will not want his identity revealed about a curious radio communication issued by say the military. To sum it all, the bill is packed with just enough ammunition for state control, handing the government leeway to take full control of any communication station in Uganda for at least a year in the event of a state of emergency (as per article 101 of the constitution). Regarding private mail by post, the proposal hands the director general to examine the mail if the authority believes the article contains “prohibited subject matter” or items deemed threatening, obscene or of “grossly offensive character.” This has already attracted wide spread discontent as some people assert it as a gross invasion of privacy with intentionally vague wording to allow the authority free access to intercept individuals mail.
Yet another issue proposed is the mandatory registration of Television Sets (TV) by any person who owns one, failure of which elicits a fine not exceeding Shs 50,000/= or imprisonment for not less than one month. A media policy analyst found this rather unrealistic in county where TV coverage is still small with perhaps 20 people owning TV’s per every 1,000. Rather than encouraging people to acquire TV sets and access information, the fees would be a disincentive which deems this a poor decision taken. The contentious bill currently is before the parliament’s Information Communication Technology (ICT) committee awaiting scrutiny. However, this proposal shows how governments whose responsibility is to promote and protect such freedoms as rights to freedom of expression and opinion through in this case the media may go round to use certain clauses knowingly or unknowingly to their own end if not challenged.