Owen Alton Baluku
Uganda Communications Commission has been challenged about its heavy-handed approach to perceived threats to public order by the media.
Speaking at a World Press Freedom Day 2019 conference in Kampala, Dr Wairagala Wakabi, the executive director of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA) said there has never been a case in Uganda where an internet or media shutdown was necessary or proportionate to a perceived threat. He said unnecessary shutdowns and directives by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) infringe on rights of access to information and freedom of expression.
“In trying to regulate online information, legitimate opinion by media might be sanctioned,” he said. “Directives like the recent one from UCC are likely to cause media to practice a lot of self-censorship. There’s going to be less diversity in opinions, on and offline.”
On April 30 2019, UCC ordered 13 radio and television stations to suspend news managers, producers and heads of programming following alleged breach of minimum broadcasting standards.
Wakabi said the actions of UCC are detrimental to democracy “especially at crucial times such as during elections when media should prominently play their watchdog role and citizens need access to broad range of diverse information for decision making.”
Responding to this submission, Mr Ibrahim Bossa, the UCC spokesperson, justified the regulator’s directives. He said were are carried out after engagement with media houses and were not intended to punish journalists and the media.
“The directive to suspend content controllers was so that they could give way for investigations, which is common practice. It is okay for the regulator to intervene so that it can protect society from information that sensational, prejudicial and likely to incite,” he said.
Ms Patricia Twasiima Bigirwa, programme officer at human rights NGO Chapter Four, questioned UCC’s assertion that its actions were made in the interest of the public. She said that the directives infringed on the rights of citizens by denying them to access to vital information about what is happening in the country.
In his presentation, Dr Wakabi discussed findings of a CIPESA study on the techno-political characteristics of countries that order shutdowns.
“A big number of them are characterised as authoritarian, tend to be lowly ranked on the 2018 press freedom index, are main predators of media freedom and their leaders have stayed in power for more than 13 years.”
He said many democracy deficits come with shutdowns and that they must be addressed even as the struggle for press freedom continues.
The panel discussion was part of the WPFD national conference organised by African Centre for Media Excellence, the Uganda Human Rights Commission, Freedom House and other media development partners.