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US Mission Protests Journalist Restrictions Ahead of 2021 Polls

“The U.S. recognizes the work of dedicated journalists in Uganda and elsewhere for their essential role. Knowledge is power,” reads the statement.
Police blocks journalists from covering sensitive scenes during Bobiwine's arrest.
The United States (US) Mission has criticized the violence and restrictions imposed on journalists ahead of the 2021 general elections. In a brief statement on its official Twitter handle on Tuesday, the US Mission said journalists safeguard democracy by investigating, observing, and sharing information, sometimes overcoming great challenges to do so.

“The U.S. recognizes the work of dedicated journalists in Uganda and elsewhere for their essential role. Knowledge is power,” reads the statement. The statement is accompanied by a quote from Thomas Jefferson, a former President of the U.S saying “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”

The statement comes a day after some European Union (EU) Diplomatic Missions to Uganda issued statements condemning the restrictions on the media and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). The statements issued by Swedish, Danish, Irish and Dutch embassies criticized the increased restrictions on the media and CSOs, which they say are key in developing democracy and protecting human rights especially during the ongoing election campaign period.

Last week, the Uganda Media Council gave a seven-day ultimatum to all practising journalists to register or risk being blocked from covering 2021 general election and other public functions. Paulo Ekochu, the Chairperson of the Media Council of Uganda warned to slap criminal charges against all media houses both local and international including freelance journalists who fail to register. 

He also recalled all the media accreditation cards that they issued the media, saying they will replace them with new ones with security features that make it hard to forge. Ekochu tagged his directives on the complaints from journalists about harassment by security forces in the course of their duties.

He said that as a council, they are incapable of doing anything because they do not know who is a journalist and who is not due to lack of accreditation. He denied accusations that the move is aimed at getting rid of critical journalists both local and international, arguing that their actions are backed by the Press and Journalists Act of 1995.

However, the move has since drawn condemnation from media activists and practitioners led by Uganda Journalists Union-UJU and the African Centre for Media Excellence-ACME among others. In a recent statement, UJU urged journalist to unite and “say No to Media Accreditation”, saying it is aimed at “intimidating journalists, curtail access to information, stifle and suppress freedom of expression.”

Lucy Anyango Ekadu, the President Uganda Journalists Union said the Electoral Commission has always accredited journalists covering elections without any hitches and complaints. The Union questioned why the Media Council is usurping the powers of the Electoral Commission and the “hidden agenda” the council “is peddling”.

On the other hand, Dr. Peter G. Mwesige, the ACME Executive Director, said “we are afraid the move has the potential of doing exactly the opposite at a time when citizens need access to reliable and timely information in order to make informed political decisions.” 

Mwesigye also noted, “The provisions of the Press and Journalist Act on licensing of journalists are controversial and still the subject of litigation in the Constitutional Court.” He contends that the Supreme Court ruled that the primary objective of media law and regulation should be to promote the right to freedom of expression and not to limit it.

He urged the council to hold more consultations with different stakeholders. Makerere University law professor, Fredrick Jjuuko made a similar argument, saying the Media Council is supposed to issue practising certificates to journalists who have presented certificates of enrolment issued by the National Institution of Journalists of Uganda (NIJU).

He, however, noted that NIJU has been moribund for more than 15 years and has not issued any certificates of enrolment, which the Media Council would base on to license the journalists.

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