The Media in Uganda is almost constantly walking a thin line trying not to step on the toes of people with power, while still trying to do a proper job of informing the public and delivering information that is true and balanced as well as holding those in power accountable.
Around different parts of the country, journalists, heads of media house and some elements within the political opposition, have reported working in fear of losing their jobs, being arrested or getting banned, which forces them to tread cautiously as they perform their roles.
Yet government appears to insist openly on maintaining considerable control of national media output.
In Mbarara district, Paulson Barugahare, (not real names) a senior staff and presenter at the government owned Radio says several times, he has been warned, threatened and even summoned by government officials to explain something that was said on his program.
Although none of the threats has resulted in an arrest or being banned, he still feels pressurized.
Barugahare says Radio West, being partially state-owned has more limitations compared to other independent radio stations and that often he has felt the pressure of selecting the information to pass on to the listeners ‘without biting the hand that feeds him.’
“Often we have to make decisions that are contradictory to the media guidelines. Often we receive press releases from state officials with an order for immediate release and there is nothing you can do but to publish,” he says.
These known limitations on the other hand though, have shielded Barugahare and some of this colleagues in the field from landing themselves in trouble unlike other media practitioners in other privately owned stations, several of whom have been arrested, battered and banned.
Personally, he tells us, he believes in total independence of the media and believes government should not interfere with media work.
“In Uganda, I would rate media freedom at 50%. It all depends on what kind of journalism you are doing. If you are doing positive or soft news kind of journalism the state has no problem with you, but once you start investigating them and publishing negative stories, they will come for you,” he added.
Government on the other hand, says reporting positively about Uganda is a duty that is expected of all media houses in the country.
“Broadcasters are duty bound to protect the public and national interest in accordance with the programming standards,” says Ibrahim Bbosa, the Consumer Affairs Manager for media regulator, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC).
Mr Bbosa says media houses, especially broadcasters are not expected among others to “promote values and attitudes which are contrary to the national interest; present information likely to mislead or cause alarm to the public or contains propagandist and ideological messages on behalf of any, group, organisation or foreign country.”
Media houses are also not expected to “Sensationalise the treatment of any issue whether local, nationalistic or foreign in nature.”
Bossa however, denies accusations that UCC tries to pressurize media houses on what to put out.
“As a regulator, we emphasise that broadcasters must ensure that their programs are fair, balanced especially when dealing with issues of public importance. This is in line with the Press and Journalist Act. This does not amount to pressurising by the government for favourable stories,” he tells us.
Field reporters also are faced constantly with threats from individuals that happen to work in government, who expect good coverage.
Elias Rutugusa, a reporter at Radio West says he was once forced to report a case to police and shift from his house because of threats from one National Agriculture Advisory services (NAADS) official over a story he ran on cows that NAADS/ UPDF was supposed to give people.
Just recently a political talk show on Vision Radio found in Mbarara town, ‘Amaziima Gonka’ (Only the Truth) hosted by Joshua Banyonyoza was cancelled by the owner of the radio station under unclear circumstances.
Some of the local politicians who used to participate on the program believe it was cancelled because of pressure from government due to its reputation to expose government shortcomings.
The chairman the Opposition FDC Mbarara District, Stanley Katembeya says the media in Uganda and particularly Mbarara is not free to make decisions and perform its duties of informing the public and playing its watchdog role.
“The media would be doing a great job if not for government interference. In Mbarara, the media is not free, they work under intimidation from government. For example, when opposition members go for talk shows, we are always given conditions, like we are not supposed to say anything negative about the President’s family. We are told what to say. You wonder why we are invited if we cannot speak our mind” he said
“Most of radio stations in Uganda are owned by government or government officials hence they restrict what is covered and said on their media platforms. Even the independent media houses are doing self-censorship because they are scared of losing the support of government which is the biggest advertiser.”
According to him, restricting the media to protect the image of the country is not right.
“The media is only a mirror through which the true image of the Nation is reflected. If the government wants to protect its image, it should do the right thing and not involve its self in scandalous events that may tilt Uganda’s image if reported” he says.
The same sentiment is shared by Wilberforce Ahimbisibwe, a former FDC parliamentary candidate for Rwampara county, Mbarara Municipality, who believes the media in this area is not free at all.”
“In Mbarara, media houses are so restricted that sometimes those opposing government are even given words to use and not to use. We are only allowed to reveal about 30% of the information that we know to the public in order to protect the program moderators. If you do not follow the guidelines, you are banned from the radio which is unfair because it is only through the media that we can reach our people.” he says.
These concerns are general reflection of what majority of Ugandans expect when they tune into to a media station or by a paper.
A 2018 study by a regional NGO Twaweza found that up to 64% of Uganda citizens prefer the idea that the media should be able to operate without government control.
The report also found that 72% of Ugandans are not concerned about damaging the country’s image if the media output is too negative.
Only 28%, the study shows, agree that too much reporting on negative events like government mistakes and corruption, harms the country.
When we asked him whether he thinks preserving the image of the country is the responsibility of the media, the UCC boss Mr Bbossa told us, “media practitioners are expected to “weigh the good and bad side of any action or a news story.”
“If a story in the editor’s judgement will bring more harm to the nation than the good, then it would be unethical to publish it.”
“Several sectors thrive on the positive image of the Country like Tourism, Sports, the financial industry and others. It is therefore essential that when presenting stories, journalist consider the bigger picture (the Country at large) in assessing the impact of their stories,” he said.
“Media practitioners are understandably supposed to be impartial and balanced. However, if protecting Uganda’s image is a good thing then all citizens must embrace it, and the media should even carry more responsibility because their actions have a global or international reach.”
John Turinawe, an NRM media activist however, believes media will not do a good job with such expectations from government.
“Media helps in revealing the trust and keeping public officials accountable for their actions. By restricting the media, government would be doing a disservice to the consumers which is us the common people” he says.
He however believes the media should seek guidance from experienced government officials before reporting on certain stories like those that may expose national security or diplomatic stories that may spark a war between two countries.
“For example with the recent situation between Rwanda and Uganda, if not well guided, the media can spark an external conflict between the two countries. The media is also part of government and are Ugandans and so they should go an extra mile to protect the interests of this country” he said
Katwire Polly, the General Secretary of NRM Party in Mbarara Municipality however, is critical Ugandan media, which he says contains bad elements that only seem to focus on the bad but never talks about the good that government does.
“Government of Uganda has given a lot of freedom to the media. They can write any kind of stories, even the false ones. They spice up stories to make more sales without caring about their implications. The media should be limited, guided on how to report on issues like exposing gaps in the national security” he said.
All in all, UCC’s Bbossa stresses the importance of media houses following the existing laws that govern the media, and to remember that the commission is empowered to take action when these laws are flouted.
The Commission is empowered by law to suspend a license for breach of license terms and conditions in accordance with Section 41 of the Uganda Communications Act 2013 and other laws of Uganda,” he says.