The Safety of Journalists is Critical for Development

Sunday, November 11, 2018

African countries continue to be rated very low in regard to freedom of expression, media freedom, safety and protection, and ending impunity against journalists. According to Press Freedom Index Report by Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, a local advocacy group, at least 113 cases of violations and abuses were reported in 2017. The report highlights laws it describes as draconian laws that still remain in force, and restricting press freedom in Uganda, among them, the Penal Code Act, Anti-Terrorism Act (2002), and Computer Misuse Act (2013).

UNESCO Media Development Indicators for Uganda notes that while the right to disseminate and impart information is guaranteed by the Uganda Constitution, there exists high levels of self-censorship by journalists due to fear of threats and harassment. This scenario is replicated in many African countries, with claw-back clauses in laws. Both World Press Freedom Index, and Freedom House, that monitors civil liberties and political state in their 2018 reports that most African countries rank low. As a result, UNESCO has been sponsoring series of engagements in Africa, on the theme of media freedom, protection and safety, and ending impunity against journalists to create a mutual understanding of responsibility of each duty bearer.

In Nairobi and Arish meetings, EALA, EAC Court of Justice, and AU Court of African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights were represented. While testimonies were chilling, they illuminated hope as strong commitments were made to coordinate efforts to prevent, create safety and protection, prosecute violators and end impunity. These engagements are particularly important in light of the special role African Media should play in the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Africa’s Agenda 2063 whose guiding vision is “ An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in international arena.” This is so because sometimes the media in African countries behave as if it has little responsibility, except to criticise their governments and spreading unverified rumours with wanton, often even scaring away the much needed direct Foreign Investments and tourism.

World all over, the media has been a key stakeholder for the societies to reach the goals of development, both as a contributor and a beneficiary. A responsible and unfettered media should serve as an integral part of the development process in terms of building knowledge societies, promoting good governance, fighting corruption, inclusivity, empowerment, peace-building, youth involvement, monitoring and priority setting in any country. UNESCO as the UN’s lead agency if promoting press freedom and media development is advocating a compressive national mechanism for safe environment and ending impunity where it still exists as documented cases attest.

In Africa, news media outlets and increasingly social media platforms are becoming central to raising awareness and providing a better understanding of the Agenda 2063 aspirations, “The Africa we want”, through investigative journalism, reporting accurately and promptly besides providing platforms for citizen’s engagement with leaders and decision makers. Three months ago President Yoweri Museveni convened a top level meeting comprising of media proprietors, senior managers and government officials responsible for public communication in an effort to build convergence between national development goals and responsible journalism, which some cynical journalists understood as an attempt at gagging or asking them to tow the government line without steadfast criticism. Journalists and media should know, that for them to earn respect like other professions, they ought to depict high standards of professionalism because for a while now, the public hass developed contempt towards journalists due to unethical behaviours including extortion and soliciting cheap favors. Many journalists in Uganda today, exhibit bias, yet when openly stating their positions on various controversial matters would help them and the profession. In addition, they are lazy, and lack depth because they and their media organisations don’t make proper investments in getting quality work done, preferring uninvestigated cheap rumours. And while the media still hangs on the coveted title of Fourth Estate, and claims to uphold good governance, most media houses in Uganda, and indeed Africa, do not provide written contracts for their employees, including journalists in violation of labour laws in respective countries. This has left many journalists to employ wit to survive. Am reliably informed that one loud newspaper in Uganda has no more than ten reporters on its payroll, and its employment manual, bars staff from joining any trade union or collective bargaining.

Online publications that are currently gaining fame especially with paid adverts are run by failed or disgraced former journalists being bankrolled rival businesses to malign and defame credible institutions or rivals.

Most of these online publishers hide behind pseudonym and anonymity because they know that much of what they publish are falsehoods, unethical and unprofessional that cannot be run in mainstream media due to rigorous gate-keeping. But cognizant of the media’s role, we need to ensure journalists are safe by making the state apparatus democratic, transparent and responsive, both during conflict and non-conflict situations, and not waiting for UNESCO support. In this regard, Uganda should establish a coordinated inter-agency mechanism comprising security organs, media, advocacy groups, DPP, and judiciary, to build solidarity frontiers on issues related to safety, ending impunity, and defend the practice of journalism