Press Freedom and the Dying Journalism in Uganda

Mr. Ofwono Opondo
May, 3, 18 
This week, the Uganda media fraternity joined the rest of the world to commemorate the World Press Freedom Day under the theme “Keeping power in check, media justice and the rule of law.” Media freedom should be seen as part of a broader campaign to push the frontiers of democracy, entrenching the rule of law, and good governance, through deepening quality and ethical journalism. This theme was relevant particularly coming against the back ground of the recent closures of some media houses by government, and physical assault, harassment, intimidation, unlawful arrest, confinement, and obstruction of journalists from accessing venues and information by the police and other security agencies.
The police in particular, have for while been the main culprit of highhandedness, and so richly received public censure in many research and media reports as well as by government bodies like Parliament, Judiciary and the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC). While it is government commitment to ensure that arbitrariness and impunity are vigorously dealt with and ended, it is unacceptable, and in fact criminal, for journalists to assault police officers on duty or disobey their lawful directives in the false belief that the media is untouchable. Media houses and editors must urgently reign on their field reporters who seem to think that media freedom implies the freedom of journalists to behave as they like often promoting self propelling egos. Professional journalists can be still be aggressive and assertive while searching for the truth and demanding accountability from public officials without being insolent or violent.
As the chief walker at this year’s press freedom day, I was taken aback as the event staged in the middle of Kampala was given a lukewarm attendance because no single media proprietor, senior managers, editors or recognizable senior journalists participated. The journalists who participated were either very junior or sent to cover news at the event, yet the media claims this was their very important day at which serious reflections were supposed to be made! Most attendees were from civil society organisations, UHRC and UN bodies. 
Over two decades ago, there used to be a very vibrant Uganda Newspaper Editors’ and Proprietors’ Association (UNEPA), Uganda Journalists Association (UJA), and Journalists Safety Committee, but which got embroiled in Uganda’s partisan and toxic electioneering especially since 2001, and consequently spilt and fizzled out. They had also been riddled by petty business rivalry among the leading newspapers, radio and television houses as each tried to undermine the other before their advertising benefactors and senior government officials.
In the vacuum created, new, but fictitious journalists organisations sprouted, and most have remained briefcase trading companies with no credible media membership, leadership, organisation and agenda. Their main activities seem to focus on soliciting money and foreign trips from the gullible western donor groups. They don’t have well established and known secretariats, and are shunned by the mainstream media houses. As a result, media houses and journalists stopped paying both membership and annual subscription fees, ceased offering any support to sustain the organisations. In fact the Uganda media and journalists are the only known ‘professionals’ who don’t want and indeed don’t pay any money to sustain their own organisations, and rely solely on charity.
During the commemoration, the media fraternity never posed even once to have internal self introspection if the powers available within media institutions and houses especially to the proprietors, managers and editors are being utilised properly, judiciously, and fairly to promote equity, growth and development of free, responsible, professional and independent media and journalists in Uganda. For instance it is a known fact that most media houses including those that claim to stand for truth don’t provide written employment contracts for some of their journalists leaving them to employ wits to survive. In fact, one newspaper and television station have in their written employment manual a provision that bars their employees from joining any form of trade union because they are seen as obstructionist. It is my considered view from years of practice that while state harassment continues to be a threat to free and independent media, the greatest threats today come from business companies and advertising agencies which give the media much of their revenue. This is not made any better in Uganda where all media houses are today run entirely as corporate businesses that seek profit and not promoting media freedom and independence.
As someone who interacts with journalists daily, I can state without any fear of contradictions that many journalists especially from radio, television and online media are extortionists who demand transport, lunch money and other favours with menaces from basic news sources as press conferences. It is now very common for them to act rowdy and sometimes walk away from a news events if ‘sufficient’ envelopes aren’t provided to them. Some are purveyors of false, fake news and hired vehicles for witch-hunt against those who refuse to succumb to their unprofessional demands. Media houses and organisations must therefore eject quacks, unethical professionals, and disengage with bloodsucking businesses to regains the much coveted status of “The Fourth Estate.”