With the media poised to play a critical role in the electoral process as never before, Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) and Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) have agreed to join hands to ensure that citizens get the right information.
This comes after the UHRC sought a meeting with UCC to discuss their concerns and recommendations relating to the use and access to media platforms during the 2021 general elections process. The meeting between the two parties took place at the UCC head office in Bugolobi on Monday, November 9, 2020.
During the meeting between UHRC Ag. Chairperson Dr. Katebalirwe Amooti wa Irumba and UCC Ag. Executive Director Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo, and their teams, UCC updated UHRC on provisions and measures in place to ensure media effectively facilitates information dissemination of the electoral process.
The UHRC Chairperson emphasized the need for equitable access for all candidates to all the available media. He expressed concern that ‘virtual campaigns might leave out many people, especially the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable who lack electricity, access to the internet, radio sets, TV or even phones.
According to UCC, the Uganda Communications (Content) regulations and the associated guidelines require media owners to grant reasonable opportunity and equitable access to all candidates, but more so on the same terms.
Radio stations held by private owners are a public good and must be used in the public interest. Candidates were encouraged to exercise their right to complain to the Uganda Communications Commission if denied access.
The meeting also discussed the widespread misinformation, disinformation and dissemination of fake news and hate speech especially on social media, and noted the efforts by UCC in collaboration with other stakeholders domestically and internationally to address this concern.
Dr. Katebalirwe called on UCC “to be mindful of all such anti-people and undemocratic practices, and to take appropriate steps to address them in a firm and resolute manner,” adding that, “social media should be guided and where possible, also regulated by you.”
He noted that freedom of expression and access to information is not absolute under the law. The constitution being the mother law of the land, provides for duties and responsibilities in the enjoyment of one’s rights.
Ms. Kaggwa Sewankambo welcomed UHRC support, pointing out that whenever UCC steps in to address such concerns, it is criticized and falsely accused of undermining freedom of speech.
“As Uganda Communications Commission, we shall especially benefit from having UHRC stand by us so that Ugandans get to appreciate that as you enjoy your constitutional rights, you must be mindful of others’ rights and the limitations provided by law,” she said.
She noted that often, well-meaning interventions are misrepresented and demonised by some in the media, and civil society groups.
Citing the registration of online media as an example, it was observed that while the motive is in the public interest and shall facilitate them to the protection of the public against the irresponsible use of online platforms, critics have described it as censorship.
It was observed that what is broadcast online has the same impact, if not more, as on traditional media and are also notably targeting the same funding that sustains traditional broadcasters.
Regarding media related complaints, the UCC ED pointed out that UCC is providing a supportive role to the Electoral Commission in the election process.
Concerned about the cost of the internet and how it might affect access to information during the electoral process, the UHRC team called on the Government and the telecommunications operators to consider suspending some of the taxes and user charges, at least during this period.
On the use of ‘Bizindalo’ (open-air radio), Ms. Kaggwa Sewankambo explained that an exception was made in light of COVID-19, but highlighted a continued concern about the noise pollution, disruption of social order, and interruption of study time for children who are required to study at home.
She revealed that UCC is engaging the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the Electoral Commission to forge a harmonious way forward.
The meeting also discussed the need to protect the democratic interests of the most vulnerable persons in society, including women, people with disabilities, the elderly, the poor and minorities, so that no one is left behind.
The ED highlighted that UCC is committed to bringing the benefits of communications to all persons, leaving no one behind as presented in its tagline, “Communication for All”.
UCC has partnered with different stakeholders such as NUWODU (National Union of Women with Disabilities of Uganda) as part of its effort to extend communications services to all.
The UHRC chairperson commended UCC for its accomplishments and guidance to the broadcasting media on elections. He noted with satisfaction the emphasis on three key elements; Reasonable Access, Equal Opportunity and Non-Discrimination, which he said are central to the realisation of a levelled political ground.
The UHRC Chairperson thanked UCC for addressing all their concerns satisfactorily and emphasised the need to work together as sister statutory institutions. He invited UCC to join UHRC in its civic education and voter education campaigns, an invitation UCC accepted.
“We are very satisfied with what we have heard regarding what UCC has been doing to ensure the rights of Ugandans are observed and protected, not only during elections in which we are involved but also in the pandemic,” he said.