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Opinion; Freedom of Press And Speech

I am dismayed by the exhilaration of some sections of Ugandans on social media who are celebrating and scathing the Red pepper publications and its management over their current predicament. As I had earlier posted, the quandary of Red Pepper has both an economic and political implications.

Economically Red Pepper publications LTD remains the biggest indigenous private newspaper/Tabloid in Uganda employing directly over 200 people and with over 2000 young men and women in indirect employment. The media house does not turn out news only, there are so many micro businesses associated with Red Pepper which are now part of this inopportune collateral damage. Shutting down businesses because of the superficial mistakes of managers is not an economically viable policy direction and this has to stop.

Politically, Uganda had earned its place on the table of civilized nations that respect freedom of expression and press.

Lately, we see some these achievements being invalidated largely because of the overzealousness of the law enforcement actions.

Back to the issue, those celebrating the Red pepper’s dilemma; accuse the paper of propagating false news and in some cases, the paper is allegedly targeting some people with the sole purpose of bringing them down.

To them, this is payback period. To others, they accuse the paper of being in bed with the ruling government and to that end let them face the music.

In my view looking at the issue at hand that way is simply being myopic. The struggle for human rights and indeed the promotion of freedom of press and expression remains a noble cause that must be embraced by all peace-loving and progressive Ugandans.

Let us as not lose focus and instead appreciate that there many ways of keeping any media house in check through the established and existing legal and institutional framework.

For example, we have The Press and Journalist Act which was enacted to guarantee the freedom of the press and to provide for a council responsible for the regulation of mass media in Uganda. This act has convoluted mechanisms for calling any media house to order including disciplining any journalist for professional transgression.

Indeed the same ‘Act’ provides for the establishment for the Media Council whose core mandate is elaborated under section 9 as being inter alia to regulate the conduct and promote good ethical standards and discipline of journalists, to arbitrate disputes between the public and the media;; to exercise disciplinary control over journalists, editors and publishers and to promote, generally the flow of information. There are many other laws and regulations that were enacted to ensure harmony in the information industry.

Therefore, it should be important to appreciate that the State has the necessary mechanisms within which to handle disputes connect with the journalism.

Individuals are still at liberty to seek redress in the courts of law for defamations if aggrieved with contents of the stories/news published. In many cases, courts have ruled against media houses and slapped heavy fines and damages.

Dialogue is critical, as well, not long ago the Lord Mayor and the management of the Red Pepper publications had a meeting over a story in which H.W Elias Lukwago was reported to have received money to construct a house from Salim Saleh. Parties met and resolved the issue, the Paper issued an apology and life went on normally.

I strongly believe that these available mechanisms need to be effectively utilized but above all closing, a media house should be considered as a last resort, not as a first option.

I know for sure that security agencies will argue the impugned actions are necessary to safeguard peace and security. Does it mean that if you get a headache you cut off the head? Of course Not!!

Interestingly, those with perfect memory will recall that some of these actions are not new.

On 24 October 1997, Charles Onyango Obbo and Andrew Mujuni Mwenda, then journalists at Monitor Publications were jointly charged in the magistrates’ court on two counts of the criminal offense of “Publication of False News”. The charges arose out of a story that the appellants extracted from a foreign paper called The Indian Ocean Newsletter, and published in the Sunday Monitor of 21st September 1997, under the headline: “Kabila paid Uganda in Gold, says report”

While their arrest did not cause paralysis like in the case of Red Pepper, that case and many others demonstrate how the state has been very enthusiastic in throwing journalists in jails in many cases beyond the mandatory 48 hours with reckless abandon.

The two herein mentioned journalists later petitioned the constitutional court and the matter was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court.

For the constraint of time and space, I will restrict myself to the judgment of justice Mulenga as he then was in Constitutional Appeal No. 2 Of 2002 in which he eloquently discussed the issue of falsity and freedom of expression, ‘’The second flaw is implicit in the observation that in absence of constraints on the freedom of expression, the objective of upholding truth would be defeated. This presupposes that to extend the constitutional protection of freedom of expression to false statements is incompatible with ‘upholding truth’. In my view, there is no such incompatibility. Extending protection of the freedom of expression to false statements does not necessarily defeat the objective of upholding the truth, because while truth and falsity are mutually exclusive, the purposes for protecting both are not’’.

RP managers in court on Tuesday

Justice Mulenga went on to opine,  “…..it is evident that the right to freedom of expression extends to holding, receiving and imparting all forms of opinions, ideas and information. It is not confined to categories, such as correct opinions, sound ideas or truthful information. Subject to the limitation under Article 43, a person’s expression or statement is not precluded from the constitutional protection simply because it is thought by another or others to be false, erroneous, controversial or unpleasant. Everyone is free to express his or her views. Indeed, the protection is most relevant and required where a person’s views are opposed or objected to by society or any part thereof, as “false” or “wrong””.

It is my opinion that what we are confronted with is a conflict between what is false/true and the freedom of press and expression.

To that very end, any state or individual taking on a media house for any reason should be mindful of various interests at play. I think that if Red Pepper closes permanently it is not only the shareholders who will suffer.

It is still possible for the state to prosecute those they have evidence against but without necessarily destroying the production lines like we saw in the case of Stanley Ndawula and the Investigator. Looking at the charge sheet, I get feeling that the Journalists arrested will merely be mentally and physically punished but nothing more. I can bet that one year from now the state will not have provided any justification for causing paralysis at the Red Pepper.

The state will be lucky of course because no one will be demanding accountability after the fact. This has happened to Monitor, Investigator and many others.

Events such as these should galvanize journalist and other Ugandans of good will to demand that govt stops the habit of harming messengers for no good cause. It is this unity that is largely lacking in the media fraternity.

In the news industry, there will always be that story you like and others that you may not like but that’s what democracy is all about

Let us abandon cynicism and we work together to promote free press and speech.

In the meantime, the state should free the incarcerated journalists and return the confiscated tools of trade unconditionally.

The write believes in Freedom of press and expression and views expressed are entirely mine.

PK

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