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World Press Freedom Day- gauging claims of press freedom

“On this World Press Freedom Day, I would like to congratulate journalists who educate, inform, and engage their communities.  We have seen many journalists lately putting themselves at risk, shining a light on sensitive but important service delivery, accountability and human rights issues in communities.”

“We also urge duty bearers to view journalists as partners in the fight against crime and barriers to development. More importantly, we call on all state actors to consistently prioritise the protection and justice of Journalists as well as raise awareness about the crucial role that diverse and independent media plays in facilitating inclusive development,” said Crispin Kaheru a Commissioner at Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), in a press statement on May 3, 2023.

The day marks 30 years since the United Nations General Assembly prociamed May 3, as the World Press Freedom Day in December 1993.

This year’s World Press Freedom Day is being celebrated under the theme; Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights.

Press freedom in Uganda

“It has been decades since Idi Amin Dada, a former president of Uganda, infamously said: “There is freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee your freedom of speech.” 19 years after Dada’s death, his terrifying threat still looms over Ugandans, particularly journalists and government opponents,” said Claire Mom a Writing fellow at the African liberty who is also a Nigerian journalist passionate about human rights and development in an article published in The African Report an online news site reported on January 9, 2023.

She added that a wave of draconian laws by Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president since 1986, criminalising journalism has dealt further several blows to the right to information.

“It is no wonder that Museveni is on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) list of press freedom predators. A free press empowers citizens, gives a voice to poor populations, and holds governments accountable for corruption. If Uganda wants to improve its rankings in democratised nations, it must begin to enable press freedom,” Mom writes.

In the article titled: Uganda’s claims of press freedom are nothing but a hoax, Mom quotes Article 29 of the Ugandan 1995 constitution which guarantees press freedom for media practitioners, civil society organisations (CSOs), and all political groupings.

However, she is quick to raise a concern over the recently signed Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act is anything but free. She says the bill criminalises the online publication of unsolicited hateful, false or malicious information.

It also prohibits the sharing of information likely to degrade or ridicule a person or group of persons.

The tricky part is that the law does not define false and malicious information, making it very imprecise.

Journalists convicted under the law would be banned from holding public office for 10 years. They could also be fined up to sh15m and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

Non-transparent police response

RSF found that Ugandan journalists who turn to the police when threatened often fail to obtain an appropriate response.

Most times, the police respond in a non-transparent way that ultimately discourages the reporters.

In 2022, nine journalists, including Norman Tumuhimbise and Farida Bikobere, were arrested for cyber-stalking Museveni and offensive communication. After weeks of relentless advocacy by CSOs, they were eventually released.

While a successful intervention from CSOs has not been the case for every harassed journalist, it has worked for many. 

She adds that the few victories prove that advocacy works. “If applied more often, CSOs can unite to achieve press freedom in Uganda. Bodies like the Peace Journalism Foundation (PJF) in the country have recorded successes in increasing visibility around safety. PJF, for instance, even extended its conquests to Kenya with support from the US embassy. If other CSOs in Uganda can emulate this pattern, other donor bodies can key into funding and collaborating on peace projects.”

Mom says building networks and coalitions of freedom advocates will also go a long way in amplifying the fight against harassment of journalists.

She notes that in Nigeria, for example, the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development, through coalitions, has promoted whistleblowing and press freedom.

The network has also recorded successes of freed journalists and government accountability.

The factor behind the success is not strange – there is strength in numbers. If more Ugandan CSOs can adopt this strategy, then more victories for journalism will be recorded.

Job insecurity

Another troubling factor that contributes to press manipulation is job insecurity in Uganda.

Journalists are among the country’s worst-paid professionals. According to Paylab, Ugandan journalists typically earn about sh709,198 ($192), and only a few make above $200. Their financial insecurity makes them susceptible to corruption.

Mom says to prevent dicey situations, owners of media houses must compensate their journalists more to prevent them from falling prey to people who may want to take advantage of their financial situation.

She says examples of adequate compensation include salary increments, bonuses, and flexible working hours.

According to her, these incentives will make the journalists feel more appreciated and, in return, boost productivity.

International bodies like the UN and RSF, and other donor organisations must also increase funding for reports that centre on press freedom and other topical issues.

“The grants will provide an opportunity for journalists to not only report on matters that concern them, but [also] provide adequate compensation for the value.”

Other forms of support from these institutions, she adds, can be via engaging CSOs and government institutions through policy dialogues, sponsoring capacity-building workshops, and providing access to information and data.

Part of Museveni’s efforts to clamp down on journalists was to heighten surveillance on their social network posts.

A team of security officers and high-tech experts was assigned to this task. As a result, efforts to stay anonymous while reporting sensitive topics are sometimes frustrating.

Mom says to counter this, groups like the International NGO Safety Organisation that focus on humanitarian safety must increase access to training for journalists to improve their security. This training can include capacity-building workshops, courses, and programmes introducing journalists to essential pro-security practices.

Mom notes that democracy provides an environment that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms and where the freely expressed will of the people thrives.

However, the obstacles and pressure for self-censorship Ugandan journalists face when they seek information of public interest negates this concept. Uganda must realise that if it wants to carry on being the “Pearl of Africa”, its beauty must first shine from within.

‘Dangerous trend’

On the same day, The Guardian UK quoted a World Press Freedom Index report which warns of disinformation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) as mounting threats to journalism.

The Guardian UK avers that the latest annual snapshot World Press Freedom Index revealed a shocking slide, with an unprecedented 31 countries deemed to be in a “very serious situation”, the lowest ranking in the report, up from 21 just two years ago.

Increased aggressiveness from autocratic governments – and some that are considered democratic – coupled with “massive disinformation or propaganda campaigns” has caused the situation to go from bad to worse, according to the list, released by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“There is more red on the RSF map this year than ever before, as authoritarian leaders become increasingly bold in their attempts to silence the press,” the RSF secretary general, Christophe Deloire, told the Guardian. “The international community needs to wake up to reality, and act together, decisively and fast, to reverse this dangerous trend.”

World Press Freedom Day, was created to remind governments of their duty to uphold freedom of expression. However, the environment for journalism today is considered “bad” in seven out of 10 countries, and satisfactory in only three out of 10, according to RSF. The UN says 85% of people live in countries where media freedom has declined in the past five years.

The survey assesses the state of the media in 180 countries and territories, looking at the ability of journalists to publish news in the public interest without interference and without threats to their own safety.

It shows rapid technological advances are allowing governments and political actors to distort reality, and fake content is easier to publish than ever before.

“The difference is being blurred between true and false, real and artificial, facts and artifices, jeopardising the right to information,” the report said. “The unprecedented ability to tamper with content is being used to undermine those who embody quality journalism and weaken journalism itself.”

Artificial intelligence was “wreaking further havoc on the media world”, the report said, with AI tools “digesting content and regurgitating it in the form of syntheses that flout the principles of rigour and reliability”.

This is not just written AI content but visual, too. High-definition images that appear to show real people can be generated in seconds.

At the same time, governments are increasingly fighting a propaganda war. Russia, which already plummeted in the rankings last year after the invasion of Ukraine, dropped another nine places, as state media slavishly parrots the Kremlin line while opposition outlets are driven into exile.

Last month, Moscow arrested the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the first US journalist detained in Russia on espionage charges since the end of the cold war.

Meanwhile, three countries: Tajikistan, India and Turkey, dropped from being in a “problematic situation” into the lowest category. India has been in particularly sharp decline, sinking 11 places to 161 after media takeovers by oligarchs close to Narendra Modi.

The Indian press used to be seen as fairly progressive, but things changed radically after the Hindu nationalist prime minister took over.

This year, the BBC was raided by the country’s financial crimes agency in a move widely condemned as an act of intimidation after a BBC documentary was critical of Modi.

In Turkey, the administration of the hardline president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had stepped up its persecution of journalists in the run-up to elections scheduled for 14 May, RSF said. Turkey jails more journalists than any other democracy.

The Guardian reported that Some of the 2023 index’s biggest falls were in Africa. Until recently a regional model, Senegal fell 31 places, mainly because of criminal charges brought against two journalists, Pape Alé Niang and Pape Ndiaye. Tunisia fell 27 places as a result of President Kais Saied’s growing authoritarianism.

The Middle East is the world’s most dangerous region for journalists. But the Americas no longer have any country coloured green, meaning “good”, on the press freedom map. The US fell three places to 45th. The Asia Pacific region is dragged down by regimes hostile to reporters, such as Myanmar (173rd) and Afghanistan (152nd).

“We are witnessing worrying trends, but the big question is if these trends are a hiccup or a sign of a world going backwards,” said Guilherme Canela, the global lead on freedom of speech at Unesco. “Physical attacks, digital attacks, the economic situation, and regulatory tightening: we are facing a perfect storm.”

A separate Unesco report released on Wednesday said healthy freedom of expression helped many other fundamental rights to flourish.

Nordic countries have long topped the RSF rankings, and Norway stayed in first place in the press freedom index for the seventh year running. But a non-Nordic country was ranked second: Ireland. The Netherlands returned to the top 10, rising 22 places, following the 2021 murder of the crime reporter Peter R de Vries. The UK was listed at 26.

The western world’s media landscape remains mixed, according to RSF and other press freedom groups, with political and financial pressures.

In the first quarter of this year, news media job cuts in the UK and North America ran at a rate of 1,000 jobs a month, a Press Gazette analysis found.

Last week, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists released a report warning against complacency in the EU, which has traditionally been considered among the world’s safest and freest places for journalists.

The group expressed concern about rising populism and illiberal governments such as in Hungary and Poland trampling on the rule of law, including press freedom. The Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and the Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak had been murdered in connection with their work.

Compiled by Robert Atuhairwe

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