It is profoundly disturbing and ironical that the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) on April 30 ordered 13 media stations to suspend “with immediate effect” 39 senior newsroom staff for falling “short of the broadcasting standards”.
Disturbing because it is an extraordinary transgression against media freedom in Uganda and ironical because the brazen demand was made on the eve of the World Press Freedom Day, which was celebrated on Friday.
Apparently, the UCC (read President Yoweri Museveni) was angered by the decision by the six television and seven radio stations to cover a protest the last Monday against the arrest and detention of a popular leading opposition figure, musician-cum-MP Bobi Wine. The stations were guilty of covering the event after being warned that they should not.
The claims in the UCC letter that the 13 stations aired material that was offensive and that had the potential to divide people along ethnic and other lines are disingenuous. Reporting a peaceful (or even violent) protest is neither offensive nor divisive! It is a right. Interestingly, one of the targeted stations is majority-owned by the NRM government and is loath to publish anything that can be even remotely regarded as offensive!
It is reassuring that the media houses have so far have ignored the directive and are instead demanding to be told what rules and regulations they offended.
The question that this knee-jerk reaction raises is: Why is President Museveni so paranoid? Is it because, after 33 years in power, it is the only institution that can call him out on his autocracy and intolerance to political mobilisation against his regime?
On this he is not alone. President Magufuli in Tanzania has been even more brutal. In his first term of office, he has shut down – some permanently — six newspapers. Never mind that the “crimes” the media outlets are accused of can never warrant closure! Misreporting, getting a fact wrong, or criticising government surely cannot be capital offences.
WARTS AND BOILS
This is a lesson that Ethiopia’s reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed quickly learnt and applied. As at December 1, 2018, the country that at any time could have as many as 18 journalists in detention, did not have any! This propelled it 40 places up the 2019 World Press Freedom index (number 110 out of 180). It is still a far cry from the top 10 but a remarkable achievement that Dr Ahmed says he is committed to improving.
It is an achievement that was recognised by Unesco hosting the global commemoration of the World Press Freedom Day in Addis this past week. An astonishing 2,000-plus delegates converged in the Ethiopian capital.
The simple message from Addis to President Museveni and President Magufuli is that stifling freedom of expression is counter-productive.
“Stopping journalists from reporting a problem does not make it go away,” said UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt.
More importantly, there is a huge overlap between the least corrupt countries and those with the freest media. A similar correlation exists between countries with most innovative populations and media freedom enjoyed in those countries. Put differently, East Africa’s presidents are wasting their breath trying to snuffle out press freedom. Look yourselves in the mirror and deal with the warts and boils you see reflected back. I guarantee you, it is not the media you will be pleasing.
Tom Mshindi is the former editor-in-chief of the Nation Media Group and is now consulting. [email protected], Twitter: @tmshindi