KAMPALA – Today, on May 3, we join with the international community to celebrate World Press Freedom Day. It is a day that provides an opportunity to celebrate press freedom around the world, recall the importance of defending the media from attacks on their independence, and pay tribute to journalists for their valuable contributions to democracy.
If ever the world needed a reminder of the critical importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines freedom of thought and opinion, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is it. The coronavirus knows nothing of national boundaries, race, religion, nationality, or politics. We are at risk simply because we are human. But we can and will defeat this virus using the strengths that respect for human rights ¬give us.
One of those central rights is freedom of expression. As individuals, we are powerless against this virus, so we warn one another by using every means of communication at our fingertips. We share vital information about the disease and its spread and sound the alarm if something is a threat to our communities.
But how do we obtain that information that we are sharing with one another? For many of us, the answer is the media. We look to the media for accurate information on the things we care about. When the media shares credible, timely information about risks and benefits, citizens can make informed choices about how to protect themselves, their families, and their neighbors. This of course is the ideal, but it can only be achieved in places with a government that fully respects freedom of the press.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ugandan media has provided vital information about the disease, how to prevent the spread of the disease, and the important measures enacted by the government to keep us safe. Media has also offered a platform for public debate and has monitored the government response and actions. Unfortunately, the media has faced far too many challenges in providing these services. Freedom House has reported at least nine separate incidents of security officials assaulting journalists across the country since the COVID-19 response began. Some journalists were forced to delete video and photo images on their cameras. Most recently, a Vision Group journalist in Kamuli, who reported about the appropriation of money to the District Task Force, spent a night in police cells on charges of disseminating false information and inciting the public.
If these abuses are allowed to continue, the media will be less willing to print the truth, the public will be less informed, and our collective response to COVID-19 will suffer. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure freedom of the press, and we call on the government to take that responsibility seriously. The overall theme of World Press Freedom Day this year is “Journalism Without Fear or Favor.” Journalists must be free to report the truth without fear of getting beaten, arrested, or having their equipment destroyed.
Journalists also have important responsibilities in this fight against COVID-19. One of the three sub-themes of this year’s commemoration is “Independent and Professional Journalism free from Political and Commercial Influence.” Journalists should always strive to be professional. We need them to do more than simply bring the story. We rely on them to strive to produce in-depth investigative stories by uncovering information from a variety of sources in order to provide deeper context for the story and more insightful public understanding of the news. Journalists should also shed light on and document activities of public institutions and public officials that are often unknown to the wider public, so as to hold these institutions and the individuals in charge accountable for their actions.
The U.S. Mission in Uganda has a strong track record of advocating for and protecting press freedom. We have supported the media in Uganda over the years through regular trainings for journalists in Kampala and throughout the country, professional development trips to the United States, and by providing the tools and resources needed to keep journalists safe.
Today, the U.S. government reaffirms our commitment to promoting the fundamental principles of a free press around the world. We honor those men and women who work tirelessly, often at great personal risk, to tell the stories we would not otherwise hear. They are the guardians of democratic values and ideals. And as the COVID-19 pandemic has so clearly shown, they play a critical role ensuring that we all – together ¬– can successfully overcome it.
The writer, Christopher Krafft is the U.S. Mission Uganda Chargé d’Affaires