Tuesday, June 15, 2010

With tough press laws, who will tell Africa’s story from Uganda?

Africa’s hosting the soccer world cup this year demonstrates how the continent is emerging as an important player on the world stage. This is regardless of whether African teams win or lose. Yet Africa is a continent where optimism and pessimism for the future exist side by side.

A continent with much-needed natural resources, yet progress is stymied by lack of infrastructure, poverty, lack of good investment policies, land clashes, violence, political and economic inequalities.

Lord Mark Malloch-Brown the former UK Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, during a recent lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London said that this creates a less happy story for Africa.

He spoke at a kind of event that we need to see more in Africa, where people freely express themselves without fear of harassment. He added that for Africa’s story to have a good ending, sufficient conditions must exist on the continent with the respect for human rights and freedom of speech.

Uganda comes in the picture in light of proposed amendments to the Press and Journalist Act of 1995 where Government plans to introduce conditions for newspapers to have licenses. Other proposals include empowering the Media Council to close newspapers, penalties against publishing considered prejudicial to national security, and injurious to Uganda’s foreign relations.

Politicians have justified that the laws are needed for Uganda’s young media which does not know what constitutes national interest.

But it is interesting to note how African politicians complain of negative coverage of Africa issues in Western media, yet quickly stifle their local media that could have told their stories. While I earnestly think Ugandan leaders desire to improve coverage of Ugandan issues, the proposed law is a contradiction.

A senior editor at a leading newspaper in the UK who has also worked in Africa, says that before opening bureaus in African countries, foreign media consider existence of vibrant and free press with non-restrictive laws. Other considerations also include availability of communication facilities.

Global media organisations with interest in Africa region could find it increasingly difficult to be present in Uganda. Yet Uganda today, more than ever, needs a vibrant media – both local and foreign. With the opening up of Uganda’s economy for private sector players in the natural resources sectors, our media will needs empowerment to investigate the excesses of unethical businesses to improve corporate performance. However, the local media cannot do investigative journalism. This has an implication that the budding serious journalism that focuses on investigating scandals is threatened.

Government should not look at the press as a political adversary; but to remember that in the wider national interests, politics is only ephemeral. Equally, journalists should not claim to be sacrosanct and must uphold the journalistic tenets and remain responsible.
One suggestion for the Ugandan government and journalists is to emulate best practices from countries such as UK with vibrant, self-regulating media that has enabled it to maintain a global presence.

The solution may not be in amending the media laws. Rather, journalists need to be helped to cope with emerging trends such as new media technologies in order to be globally competitive. Not curtailment. Also, it is important to bear in mind that with technologies such as internet, mobile telephony, it is increasingly getting hard to control information flow and freedom of expression.

The opportunity to have Uganda’s story told is for the Ugandan government to lose. Statutory controls may have limitations and affect the telling of the African story to the rest of the world. Western press will not prioritise African issues if Africans do not do it themselves.

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