Uganda: The shrinking space for freedom of speech

Uganda: The shrinking space for freedom of speech

A few days ago the Paris-based group Reporters without Borders (RSF) released a report that caused some distress to Uganda’s information minister. The RSF report detailed the difficulties faced by Ugandan journalists and showed how the space for media freedom in the country has been shrinking.

Mary Karooro Okurut, the information minister, responded by saying that the report does not give an “accurate picture of press freedom in Uganda.”

The RSF’s Press Freedom Index ranks Uganda at 139 out of 170 countries surveyed worldwide. This is something that should obviously worry human rights activists. The report also condemns the National Resistance Movement (NRM), the ruling party, for limiting the media industry’s ability to operate freely.

Actually, though, the media should be applauded for their willingness to cover various controversial issues in this country. These are matters of national importance, ranging from the economic crisis that resulted in the “Walk to Work” protests to the debate about corruption in the oil sector.

Like any other reasonable person, I would strongly agree that the media be granted the freedom to work. But that may be a bit much to ask from a regime like the one we have here in Uganda. And perhaps matters are complicated by the political and economic hardships the country faces.

Ugandan government security operatives have threatened, intimidated, and in some cases tortured journalists. These experiences have transformed journalism into a risky profession, one in which its practitioners are susceptible to torture and unlawful arrest. You can get arrested for covering stories that make the state uncomfortable. Even radio presenters have become targets. The resulting climate of fear means that many Ugandans no longer bother discussing politics in the open.

And yet the 1995 constitution of the Republic of Uganda, as well as its amended version, clearly provide for the freedom of speech: Article 29 (1) (a) specifies that “every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media.”

It goes without saying that his principle is no longer widely observed. The state, indeed, actively works to limit freedom of speech. Its main tool for doing this is the police.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the police had a reputation as protectors of the lives and property of the citizens of Uganda. That is their constitutional duty as an institution. Nowadays, however, their mission seems to have changed.

The police targeted journalists during the “Walk to Work” campaigns. In January 2012, a shot was fired at a journalist by plainclothes security personnel travelling in police vans. In November of last year a Rwandan journalist was shot dead in Uganda. Dozens of reporters have been beaten and injured and their equipment confiscated in the course of their work. (The photo above show a man fleeing police tear gas during a Jan. 24 protest in a suburb of Uganda.)

The reputation of the police among ordinary Ugandans is dismal – and not only because of the way it treats the press. Corruption and the abuse of human rights have also done a great deal to widen the divide between the police and the public. This divide will only deepen unless the government does something to clean up this mess. Getting the police out of the media business might be a good place to start.