Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Press freedom in Uganda

Today marked the outcome of an interesting court case. Two years ago two Daily Monitor editors were arrested and charged with forging a letter by the President, as part of a story about land issues in western Uganda. After many delays to the proceedings, the Chief Magistrate today acquitted them and said they had no case to answer.

The coordinator of the Human Rights Network for journalists said, ‘This is the first time in the history of Ugandan journalism to hear of a charge of forgery against journalists, thank God it has collapsed.’

Admittedly, cases such as this have not been common since we arrived in Uganda. Indeed, if asked, ‘How free is the press in Uganda?’ our immediate answer would be ‘remarkably free’. We are constantly surprised by the extent of critical comment about the current regime which is printed in the national press.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Uganda’s independence. It is also the 26th anniversary of the uprising led by President Museveni, at the time a guerrilla leader. This week the newspapers have been full of articles questioning the extent to which the aims of that rebellion have been achieved. Many are written by the President’s erstwhile comrades-in-arms who now find themselves in opposition. Such articles are often quite personal in their criticism of the President himself. One common theme is the irony that the 1986 bush war was triggered by opposition to election rigging, when not only last year’s election but both the two previous ones were marked by fraud of various kinds: stuffed ballot boxes, inaccurate electoral rolls, bias within the electoral commission and so on. These are serious charges, but, nevertheless, they have been printed in the national press.

In fact, in some respects, things have seemed to have got a bit easier for the press, on the surface anyway. Whereas during the 2006 election the Editor and journalists of the Daily Monitor were imprisoned, in the 2011 election they were left alone. The reason? We can only guess, but here goes. Newspaper readers are the elite of Uganda. At Shs1,500 (40p), a newspaper costs almost a full day’s wage for about a third of the population. Consequently newspaper readers, particularly of the English language press, are relatively few and hence have few votes to cast. The people who have the votes are the non-newspaper-reading general population, the urban and rural poor. The poor don’t read newspapers but their votes can be bought – and that is what happened. Freedom or otherwise of the press was irrelevant in last February’s election; it was fought by distributing soap, sugar and salt – and lots of brown envelopes.

The organisation Reporters without Borders, however, does not share our perhaps overly-sanguine view of press freedom. Two weeks ago they published their Index of Press Freedom for 2011. Uganda had dropped 43 places to 139th out of 170 countries. RwB called it ‘a year that will not be forgotten by its media’. It noted that journalists ‘were the targets of violence and surveillance during the presidential election in February and were targeted again during the brutal crackdown on the “Walk to Work” protests later in the year, when dozens of journalists were arrested.’

The report adds, 'The trend indicates a systematic and calculated move by these institutions [police and army] to hamper journalists from executing their duties.'

There have been 203 attacks on journalists in 2009, 2010 and 2011. By the end of 2011, 28 journalists had court cases pending and 20 had been charged at police stations.

A letter from the President last May warned, ‘The media houses both local and international, such as Al-Jazeera, BBC, NTV, The Daily Monitor etc that cheer on these irresponsible people are enemies of Uganda’s recovery and they will have to be treated as such.’

Certainly, police have shot at Ugandan journalists trying to cover demonstrations by the Activists for Change (A4C) movement, one only a few days ago. Some journalists have even been accused of treason, which carries the death penalty. Many journalists were beaten up and had their cameras smashed during the return from Kenya of the Opposition leader Besigye some months ago. Nevertheless, their articles were printed, both about the protests and about their own treatment, and their pictures, including some very dramatic shots, were published.

RwB is not the only organisation which is concerned about threats to journalists, however. Last November’s report on governance and corruption by the Economic Policy Research Centre, for the Inspector General of Government (IGG), noted that free speech was under threat. The group’s leader said, ‘It is very important that we have a free media. The indicators …point to Uganda being on a precarious footing.’

There are a number of forces at play here, it seems.  Firstly, the brave journalists we are talking about come from just a handful of newspapers and media outlets. The ones we are most aware of are The Daily/Sunday Monitor, The Independent (weekly), The Observer (weekly) and The East African (The Monitor’s sister paper, published in Kenya). The only other quality English language newspaper is the New Vision. Civil servants wouldn’t be seen perusing anything else: New Vision is owned by the government and reads like it. Whereas the Monitor has recently transformed itself (using the British daily The Independent as a model, I think) and become more intellectually challenging and less parochial, the New Vision remains as turgid as ever.

Secondly, the Monitor is careful to choose its ground. It is not a campaigning newspaper. It still contains local news stories written in idiosyncratic Ugandan English. Its centre pages are padded out by a lot of garbage aimed at its wealthy readership. These pages print repetitive articles about the kinds of kitchens and bathrooms we Britons see depicted in Homes and Gardens. Today’s edition poses the following taxing questions: Would you buy a house or a car first? and Have you ever considered a mini-bar in the living room?, questions of only marginal relevance to the third of the population who live in mud-and-pole or grass-thatched huts, the 85% using pit-latrines or, indeed, the 10% with no toilet at all. Another of today’s headlines is Do you really have to educate your child abroad?. I have seen articles about women's shoe storage problems (only 58% of Ugandans have one or more pairs of shoes). I have read about the need to introduce children to household tasks – this in a country where child labour affects three-quarters of the child population. This article was illustrated by a picture of three cute girls, the youngest of which held a knife as long as her arm with which she was pretending to peel a carrot. However, most of the middle pages are obsessed with ‘relationships’ – how to keep your man, in other words.

Nevertheless, such articles attract readers who then absorb the more important stuff as well.

One of the other forces at play, of course, is the whole question of functional literacy, the value placed on it by the country’s leaders and their commitment to achieving it. Democracy and active citizenship require high levels of literacy and critical thinking among the general population. In other words, in order to take an active role in their communities and their country, in order to believe that change is desirable and possible, people need to be educated. Levels of literacy and numeracy in Uganda, however, are unbelievably low and are thought by some to be falling even further. Data from the Ministry of Education and Sports show that 72% of primary pupils drop out before they get anywhere near P7 and the precious Primary Leaving Examination.

Given such low levels of participation, aspiration and achievement in education, perhaps press freedom isn’t all that important an issue. After all, the primary drop-outs form the majority of the population and they certainly aren’t going to be reading the Daily Monitor.

On the other hand, perhaps it is only papers like the Daily Monitor which are brave enough to point this out.

You may also be interested in:

Daniel Kalinaki's account of the implications of the Daily Monitor forgery case: Of what use is it for man to be free but to be imprisoned by fear?  Kalinaki is the Managing Editor of the Monitor.

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