Ensuring the Safety of Journalists and Media Workers:
The Uganda Human Rights commission (UHRC) once again joins the rest of the world to commemorate the World Press Freedom Day which falls every 3rd May as a way of raising awareness of the importance of freedom of expression and press freedom in Uganda. UHRC has joined its other partners who include UNESCO, UJA, GIZ and OHCHR, Kampala to add its voice to the advocacy for a better operating environment for the media and to open discussion on how enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists can be enhanced in Uganda.
The right to freedom of expression is particularly important for journalists who should be free to express their opinions without fear of prosecution and provides for the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas and is therefore considered as one of the major pillars of good governance. However, in the enjoyment of this freedom the media is expected not to violate other people’s human rights, morality and safety and therefore like all other rights, it is not an absolute right and is subject to limitations contained in recognized human rights instruments at the international, regional and national levels.
The Uganda Human Rights Commission recognizes improvements in the operating environment for the media in Uganda since the adoption of the liberalization press policy in 1993. Uganda has witnessed a high rate of growth of a vibrant and dynamic media industry covering divergent interests and views, also supported by of enabling laws to protect the freedom of expression and safety of journalists.
UHRC further notes improvements in the availability of tools and channels of communication such as affordable internet, mobile telephones, television and radio sets as well as newspapers. UHRC lauds the role of the media in the protection and promotion of human rights in Uganda by exposing human rights violations such as the violation of the right to life attributed to mob justice, human sacrifice as well as the right to property with the main focus on land issues. The media has also increasingly exposed human rights violations related to children, women and the elderly.
However, despite the universal recognition of press freedoms, the press the world over continues to face serious challenges especially regarding the enjoyment of press freedoms such as securing the safety of journalists who are sometimes victims of arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions; torture; murder; disappearances; extrajudicial killings and rape. The problem is compounded by the high prevalence of impunity for crimes against journalists. The media continues to face challenges in its work in many parts of the world, including Uganda.
UHRC notes that journalists in Uganda have faced some challenges as they exercise their right to seek, receive and impart information including reports of some journalists being subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment; arbitrary deprivation of property and unlawful arrests sometimes including instances of charges under laws that courts have declared to be inconsistent with the Constitution. There have also been reports of journalists being denied access to news scenes and their equipment being confiscated, damaged or destroyed, as well as operating under poor working conditions with no safety and protection gear; lack of bullet proof kits health and life insurance and in some instances lack identity cards. UHRC has also noted with concern the growing incidence of low professionalism among media practitioners which has in some cases led to irresponsible, inaccurate and unbalanced media reports that have had the potential to excite and inflame rather than inform. The media should also always remember that media freedoms too come with duties and responsibilities which require them to practice responsible journalism at all times.
As we commemorate this year’s World Press Freedom Day, the Uganda Human Rights Commission calls upon all stakeholders to play their role in the enhancement of the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists in Uganda. We call upon government to uphold its duty to respect, to protect and fulfill the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and to implement recommendations it adopted during Uganda’s Universal Periodic Review in Geneva in 2011. We continue to urge government to consider a visit to Uganda by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression as a sign of our country’s commitment to promoting this right. Additionally, UHRC urges security agencies to bring to book their personnel that violate rights of journalists and to make public disciplinary actions taken against them.
While we demand that media houses put in place safety and protection mechanisms for journalists assigned to cover riotous or dangerous scenes and provide them with health and insurance schemes, there is need for journalists themselves to take primary responsibility for their safety by avoiding situations in which they are caught in the line of fire. We encourage journalists whose rights have been violated to take advantage of the available redress mechanisms that include the Uganda Human Rights Commission, courts of law and special rapporteurs.
There is also need for Parliament and all stakeholders in the protection and promotion of human rights to review all media laws to assess their compliance with international human rights standards in order to implement law reforms that would improve the media regulatory environment and to expedite the process of expunging from the law books all press laws that have been nullified by the Courts of law.