Media groups are challenging a decision by the country’s communications regulator to remove dozens of senior journalists from their news management roles over coverage of music star turned politician Bobi Wine, whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu.
Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) on April 30 directed 13 media organisations to suspend 39 producers, editors and heads of news, and submit all news and live-streamed content aired the day before.
“On that day, Honorable Kyagulanyi was arrested, charged and taken to Luzira prison and media houses got those problems because of covering that,” said Charles James Ssenkubuge, one of the journalists suspended by the directive.
He is the general manager of Salt Media in Kampala and until May 1 was also its head of programmes. Initially, he was suspended from work for a week but following a meeting between broadcasting executives and UCC, he was recalled as general manager but not as head of programmes.
The UCC said the 39 journalists have to step aside for 30 days as it investigates them for a possible breach of broadcasting standards. But its critics say the directive is only the latest in a pattern of using its regulatory powers in political service to President Yoweri Museveni’s 33-year-old regime.
“This isn’t the first time. There are so many journalists and stations that are regularly under threat from these directives that aren’t even always written,” said Peter Mwesige, a media scholar and executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala.
“They have become quite clever at leaving no tracks. You just see your licence not renewed or know your station was switched off air at a particular time.”
On Thursday in Kampala, the high court heard arguments from the Uganda Journalists Association and two private lawyers who are seeking to halt the suspension or re-assignment of the journalists targeted by the latest directive.
Coming at a time when the country’s political temperature is heating up ahead of national elections in 2021, when both Bobi Wine and President Museveni are expected to run for presidency, the court battles throw the country’s media laws and regulatory framework into the spotlight.
Uganda’s constitution guarantees the right to free expression “shall include freedom of the press and other media”, but its media laws are often criticised as favouring control of media platforms.
“One thing that I think people have discovered as a result of what has just happened is the amount of power given to the communications regulator,” UCC spokesperson Ibrahim Bbossa told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
“The president of the Uganda Law Society confirmed that the regulator has a lot of powers and that, perhaps, these powers need to be adjusted or reduced. It is a fact that the law gives us a lot of powers,” he admitted.
He argued, however, authorities need these powers to regulate the industry effectively.
But some media members do not agree.
“Unless something is done right now, if we leave things as they are, it is going to get even more difficult when we go into elections,” Ssenkubuge said. He is not involved in the court cases but said he is watching keenly.
After he received the directive suspending him and two colleagues from work, Ssenkubuge went to the UCC office with a letter stating his station hadn’t run any live-streams on the day in question, and aired a balanced account of events in the news bulletin.
In a meeting with the commission’s head of multimedia regulation, he said he was told that delivering his protest letter would trigger the commission’s next step: switching the station off air, for non-compliance with the directive.
“I was forced to withdraw that letter,” Ssenkubuge said.
Similarly, a week after the directive was issued, the National Association of Broadcasters sought a meeting with the UCC. Daniel Kalinaki, an executive who attended, later wrote in his weekly column that “despite a lengthy and, at one point rather heated debate, the meeting only achieved semantics: the journalists would not be suspended, but would only be asked to ‘step aside’ to allow investigations to continue”.
Still, activists such as Mwesige say media groups and journalists are not being aggressive enough in resisting the restrictions.
“The media owners are complicit in this state of affairs. They didn’t challenge the authority of UCC in suggesting suspensions for their staff. Instead they sought to find some sort of common ground. As soon as you start such negotiations, you are on a slippery road to hell,” Mwesige said.