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Serumaga Story: Why ULS is Wrong on UCC and the Need for Self-regulation

By Robert Mulema

On the night of Friday, September 11, 2009, Robert Kalundi Serumaga was in high spirits as he arrived at the then popular television station, WBS, in Naguru, Kampala for a show dubbed “Kibazo on Friday.”

The political mood was tense.

Supporters of Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi had taken to the streets in a violent fashion to protest government’s decision to block the monarch from traveling to Kayunga where a rival cultural leader was calling for a secession from Buganda.

During the show, Serumaga said President Museveni was causing the conflict between people who had hitherto co-existed peacefully, so that they can distract them from the illegalities attendant to the exploration of oil taking place in western Uganda and the attendant land grabbing.

“If President Museveni, because of his character or his upbringing or whatever has failed to understand organized constitutional processes, that’s his problem. The issue here is that as long as the Banyoro and people who can be convinced to start thinking that they are Banyoro like the Baruuli and the Banyala, as long as they can be distracted from the organized theft of oil that is being organized in Bunyoro by being sent to quarrel with….to re-event 200 old Years quarrels with Buganda, then the government is fine,” charged Serumaga.

“The real issue here is that the entire oil industry is in the hands of a few people. The two forces guarding the oil fields in Bunyoro are who? The Presidential Guard Brigade, oil is not a President therefore PGB has no business protecting the oil, then secondary… Saracen Security. Saracen Security owned by the President’s brother is another Force active there,” he added.

“The Banyoro should wake up and remember who Kabalega was and ask the questions that were asked that you people you are drilling oil in our Native homeland, what is our stake, how much oil is it, what are our rights, that is number one…The Banyala have told you that they are Baganda, even the family of that man Kimeze have told you that they don’t know what their brother is doing….there is nobody in Bunyala that is why he can’t make it a policy issue he has to deal with them individually, secretly in State House and start….money…”

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As Serumaga spat fire, riots had spread across Buganda region. Trucks and buses were being set on fire in Mukono and Nateete. Plumes of smoke from burnt tyres billowed across Kampala’s skyline. The country teetered on the verge of destruction.

A road grader belonging to Dott Services was torched along Wandegeya- Kawempe road.

Kampala’s downtown business centre was a no-go area as rioters took on security forces in running battles. Property worth billions of shillings was destroyed. Traders who had stocked perishable goods paid the price as millions of people deserted the city.

While Serumaga was not to blame for the violence, his remarks on WBS were perceived as intended to fuel the political violence.

Arrest

Immediately after the talk show, Serumaga was arrested and detained for four days and later charged with sedition and released on bail.

Upon release, Serumaga went to his workplace at Radio One where he was handed a letter from the chairman of the Broadcasting Council, Eng Godfrey Mutabazi, written to the General Manager of the television – directing he should “not be allowed to host, present or moderate any programme” because of the charges of incitement of violence pending before him.

Earlier in August, Godfrey Ssebbagala, a talkshow host had interviewed Mary Bwogi who alleged that former Private Secretary to the president, Amelia Kyambadde, had embezzled money meant for the 2006 general elections.

He was later suspended from the radio station on orders of the Broadcasting Council.

Court process

The duo went to court seeking a declaration that the act of Mutabazi in suspending Kalundi Sserumaga tantamount to abuse of office and was contrary to the Leadership Code Act. They also said the act was done without authority and that Mutabazi did not have powers to discipline journalists.

They also contended, just like the Uganda Law Society (ULS) said today, that the act of suspending media practitioners from their employment in their respective media houses was illegal and unconstitutional for failure to accord the applicants an opportunity to be heard.

The Law Society, while arguing in defence of media practitioners whom the UCC wants suspended for airing content deemed anarchic in the Bobi Wine saga, said the regulator “does not have the mandate to order suspension of any media staff.”

ULS further guided that disciplinary action against journalists is the mandate of the media council whose functions are clearly articulated in section 10 (1) of the Press and Journalist Act, Cap 105.

The body also observed that UCC’s directive is “illegal, null and void for violation of due process and fair hearing principles enshrined in the constitution. The UCC cannot be the complainant, investigator, judge, executioner of the alleged breach of minimum standards.”

Judgement

Interestingly, on the morning of October 31, 2014, Justice Benjamin Kabiito relied on section 8 of the Electronic Media Act which sets out the minimum broadcasting standards to rule against Serumaga: “A person shall not carry out any broadcasting or operate a cinematography theatre unless what is to be broadcast or exhibited is in compliance with the provisions of the first schedule of this Act.”

For example, a broadcaster or video operator was required to ensure that all programmes are not contrary to public morality; do not promote culture of violence or ethical prejudice among the public; do not create public insecurity or violence…”

The judge ruled that the broadcasting council, which later merged with Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) to form UCC, had the “mandate of coordinating and exercising control and to supervise broadcasting activities of radio stations.”

Justice Kabiito added: “The utterances of words that could have a seditious intent and the incitement to violence especially if communicated on the airwaves of a radio station that has the capacity to reach a large section of the population, of this country, is a serious matter for national security, public order and tranquility, and it would be a matter that had to be investigated in the public interest by the security agencies…”

Currently, all broadcasters in Uganda are regulated by UCC.

For a media owner to obtain an operational license, one has to sign a document committing oneself to upholding the standards for general broadcast programming in Uganda.

The broadcast policy provides that programmes should not: promote values and attitudes which are contrary to national interest; present information or events in a manner likely to mislead or cause alarm to the public; contain propagandist and ideological messages on behalf of any, group, organization or foreign country; contain extremist or anarchic messages, including the incitement of violence for political ends or other purposes; or sensationalize the treatment of any issue whether local, nationalistic or foreign in nature.

It is surprising that ULS did not realise the extent of the UCC’s powers in regulating the broadcast media.

Journalists

The lesson one picks from Serumaga’s legal battle, ULS’s legal guidance and UCC’s instructions to suspend news managers accused of airing content thought to be inciting violence is that the law fully empowers the regulator to crack the whip.

Going forward, the media needs to invest in self-regulation to avoid these clashes.

The self-regulation mechanism should empower respectable veteran journalists to take punitive and corrective action against misbehaving media practitioners and broadcasters/publishers so that UCC only intervenes in critical times.

Secondly, publishers need to be strict on their journalists who are visibly biased. Some of them participate in demonstrations, raising concerns about their impartiality – a cardinal requirement for an independent media.

The media owners also need to look out for possible influence of their journalists by foreign forces represented by some elements in the civil society.

Lastly, UCC needs to work closely with media houses to conduct training sessions for news managers as it is clear some have little knowledge about broadcasting standards. UCC should not assume that all broadcasters have a full grasp of the rules of the game.

The meeting of UCC and Uganda Broadcasters to resolve any disagreements and misconceptions as reported by the media is a step forward in the right direction.

The author is a retired communications specialist and senior citizen

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