Journalists Call for Safety and Press Freedom in Elections

Journalists and media workers, representatives from the Uganda Human Rights Commission, Electoral Commission (EC), other state institutions, development partners, and civil society organisations, converged at Hotel Africana in Kampala on 2nd May 2019, to dialogue on the theme: “Media and elections: Mainstreaming journalism safety and ethics in election cycles.” Convened by the Uganda Journalist Association (UJA) in partnership with the Human Rights Network for Journalists Uganda (HRNJ-U) with funding from the DGF, the dialogue was one of the events held ahead of the World Press Freedom Day commemoration- 3rd May 2019.

In his welcoming remarks, Mr Robert Ssempala, the Executive Director for HRNJ-U noted that press freedom in Uganda, at present, is in a precarious situation. He decried recent sanctions imposed on some media houses, such as directives by the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) to some media houses to suspend their staff; and the closure of some radio stations for providing platform to alternative political voices in the country.

On behalf of the DGF, H.E. Per Lindegärde, Ambassador for Sweden and DGF Board Chair, pointed out that freedom of the press is rooted in the fundamental human rights of freedom of expression and speech, and is essential for democracy and rule of law.  He urged all stakeholders in the country to uphold the importance of a free and independent press because it plays a critical role in providing information to the citizens of Uganda about the social, political, and economic environment in society.

There was a panel discussion on the topic: “Relationship between elections and media: what are the main issues of concern in the election cycle?”  Panellists included: Hon Steven Tashobya from the EC; Mr Charles Odoobo Bichachi from the Nation Media Group; Mr Richard Kayiira, from Vision Group; Ms Charity Ahimbisibwe from Citizens' Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU); and Mr Robert Ssempala from HRNJ-U.

Hon. Steven Tashobya pointed out that the EC released a roadmap for the 2021 national general elections and has started engaging all key stakeholders including the media. He noted that the EC considers media as strategic partners in the election process, and highlighted various instruments in the country’s legal framework, which guarantee media freedom and provide for remedies in case of violations.

Mr Richard Kayiira expressed concern over a growing number of journalists who get attacked while on duty; and the constraints media organisations encounter with the Public Order Management Act, in their efforts to engage communities in debates on governance. He asked the EC to engage with relevant institutions to address the above concerns.

For Mr Charles Odoobo Bichachi, the short timeframe allocated to election cycles; the high costs involved in following up and covering candidates during their campaigns; inadequate fact checking by journalists during campaigns; inadequate skills by journalists to report on elections; and punitive actions on media houses for relaying preliminary election results from polling stations, are key challenges to the media in electoral processes.

In her submission, Ms Charity Ahimbiisibwe said that the media is expected to relay credible information to voters; provide platforms for debates; act as watchdogs, and provide a voice for candidates and citizens during elections. She advised journalists to always distinguish between opinions and facts; ensure accurate reporting; use multiple sources; cover diverse issues; accord balanced coverage to all candidates; and report electoral malpractices, among others. She shared content analysis of media coverage for the 2016 general elections, which indicated that some candidates were given more space and attention than others.

Mr Robert Ssempala asked the EC to put in place a specific desk in charge of media complaints; use election constables instead of the police and army; and harmonise the discrepancy usually noted between the preliminary voting results the media relays from polling stations and the final results the EC eventually announces. He further requested the EC to advocate for equal access to public media by all candidates during campaigning period.

In the plenary discussions, participants called on the EC to condemn attacks on journalists by state agents, and to engage other state actors in the electoral process to ensure protections and safety of journalists. On the other hand, journalists were urged to remember their responsibilities as they demand for their rights; to observe their ethics and code of conduct; to remain non-partisan during election period; and to understand that there are various actors in the electoral process such as Uganda Police, UCC, and Parliament whose roles and mandates are not under the control of the EC.