MARCH 14, 2010: Goverment Must Support Free Press

Government Must Promote Free Press
SOURCE: New Vision
Kampala — THE Press and Journalists (Amendment) Bill, 2010, which is now before Cabinet, has raised concern among journalists. While we respect the right of the Government to amend laws, we are dismayed at the letter and spirit of this Bill.

Article 29 (1) (a) of the Constitution protects freedom of expression and the press. This Bill, if passed into law, will encroach on these very freedoms.

Among other things, the Bill proposes annual registration and licensing of newspapers by a government-controlled media council, restricts foreign-ownership of the press and seeks to influence newspaper content by criminalising the publication of information that is deemed prejudicial to national security, stability, unity or economic interests.

National security remains a blanket condition, not specifically defined in the Constitution and other laws. Who determines what is prejudicial or not to national security, stability or unity?

A free press is a pillar of accountability in any democratic society. It speaks truth to those in power and reports about the things that are done in the name of the citizens including, as usually happens, things that the powerful would rather keep hidden away.

The press should exercise this mandate fairly and responsibly. We recognise this obligation and have, together as an industry, supported the creation of a code of conduct for all journalists.

The Bill does not just seek to regulate the press. It gives the Government much latitude to determine what is fit to print and what is not.

It is an undisputed fact that the media, under President Yoweri Museveni's administration, has been vibrant. These gains, however, will be lost if such laws are used to clamp down on the media. At the moment, there is no justification to change the current requirement of registering newspapers at the General Post Office, to the state-controlled Media Council with sweeping powers.

Instead of introducing this legislation, the Government should enter into dialogue with the media to ensure that any concerns about press freedom and professionalism are tackled.