KAMPALA – Hundreds of media professionals and governments around the world join hands in commemorating the World Press Freedom Day, which, annually, takes place on t May 3.
World Press Freedom Day is an important occasion to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world; to defend the media from attacks on their independence; as well as paying tribute to journalists for their efforts and struggle in the exercise of their profession.
The theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day theme is: “Information as a Public Good,” which serves as a call to affirm the importance of cherishing information as a public good; and exploring what could be done in the production, distribution and reception of content to strengthen journalism; and to advance transparency and empowerment while leaving no one behind. The theme is of urgent relevance to all countries across the world including Uganda. It recognizes the changing communications system that is impacting on our health, our human rights, democracies and sustainable development.
During the complete month of May, UNESCO and its partners will organize a series of events, over social media platforms to identify the vital role that journalists play in the society and to generate discussions on the importance of free and independent media in providing the public with reliable, timely and trustworthy information.
UNESCO Director General, Audrey Azulay in her message stated: “The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day – Information as a Public Good – underlines the indisputable importance of verified and reliable information. It calls attention to the essential role of free and professional journalists in producing and disseminating this information, by tackling misinformation and other harmful content.”
This year’s World Press Freedom Day, marks the 30th Anniversary of the UNESCO Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press.
The Windhoek declaration led to the recognition by the UN of the World Press Freedom Day to be celebrated every May 3.
After 30 years, the historic connection made between the freedom to seek, impart and receive information and the public good remains as relevant as it was at the time of its signing.
The importance of freely accessing reliable information, particularly through journalism, has been demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic: in times of crisis such as this, information can be a matter of life or death.
The COVID-19 crisis has placed journalists and quality journalism and public interest media once again at the centre of the global discourse. Reporting on the crisis, through initiatives such as the popularization of scientific facts; the compilation and frequent updating of data; fact-checking or monitoring spending, has proved vital.
The covid-19 pandemic has forced the closure of media houses around the world, reporters have been harassed and attacked for their reporting on the handling of the pandemic, and the public has struggled to discern verified information from the falsehoods that have flooded the internet.
UNESCO calls on all partners, to renew their commitment to the fundamental right to freedom of expression, to defend media workers, and to ensure that information remains a public good.
In the last decade, media freedom has declined in almost all corners the world (Freedom House 2019). Media professionals are increasingly being threatened, harassed, assaulted and killed (Simon 2015; Hughes and Vorobyeva 2019).
Most of the attacks remain unresolved which fosters a culture of ‘impunity’ causing fear and self-censorship among journalists (Waisbord 2002). There are many sorts of perpetrators, but governments are among the fiercest (Graber 2015, 237). Governments are also increasingly suppressing critical expression through a range of measures: national security prosecutions; laws on terrorism; withdrawal of state adverts, etc. (Simon 2015).
Uganda is no exception to this development: the conditions for independent media have deteriorated quickly. From 2002 to 2020, Uganda has fallen from rank 52 to 125 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, according ‘Reporters Without Borders 202.’ During that period President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power in 1986, and his ruling National Resistance Movement – NRM have tightened their grip on power.
The NRM government is a semi-authoritarian or a ‘hybrid’ regime (Tripp 2010): since 1995 Uganda has a multi-party system and a democratic constitution that guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press, yet the regime has recurrently been clamping down on dissenting voices.
Government has shrunk the democratic space and twice changed the constitution to allow Mr Museveni to continue to run for presidency, removing a two-term limit in 2005 and a 75-year presidential age limit in 2017.
Violations of media freedom are especially severe during elections, social unrest, or when journalists are exposing corruption or other governmental wrongdoings (Human Rights Watch 2010; HRNJ-Uganda 2019b).
Cohen and McIntyre (2020) suggest that the paradoxical situation with a liberalized media system with many different media houses and at the same time governmental crackdowns on media freedom blurs the line between a free press and a restricted press, and that the resulting self-censorship and lack of critical reporting may strengthen existing power structures.
The history of the media sector in Uganda is like a never-ending sword-play between publishers and the government, in which periods of a vibrant media industry have been followed by periods of state repression since the 1920s (Stremlau 2018, 36).
As in many other African countries, journalists and the media played an important part in the independence movement; once the new leaders turned authoritarian, journalists and the media turned against the new government (White 2017, 16–17).
During the last period of liberalization in Uganda in the 1990s, a number of newspapers, radio stations and broadcasters were established, which created a relatively strong media industry now struggling to protect its rights.
As NRM controls virtually every aspect of political life, journalists and media organizations have used legal actions to defend media freedom (Lugalambi and Tabaire 2010, 18; Stremlau 2018, 136).
Only two years after the new constitution was adopted in 1995, journalists filed the first major constitutional appeal in the Constitutional Court: the case Onyango-Obbo & Mwenda v. Attorney General. Subsequent changes to the legal opportunity structure in combination with a few landmark court room victories have encouraged media organizations to make litigation a prime strategy.
But, arbitrary arrests and charges against journalists as well as systemic impunity for crimes against journalists, have also made legal strategies necessary.