The Electoral Commission (EC) has eased restrictions on use of cameras and other recording devices at polling stations on election day.
Earlier this week, the chairman of EC, Justice Simon Byabakama communicated new guidelines that would apply to the January 14 general election. Contentious among these was the directive that voters will not be allowed to remain at polling stations after voting to witness the vote counting and a ban of cameras at the polling stations.
The ban on cameras was strangely extended to journalists as well. Opposition political parties, however, questioned the legality of the directives which they say may discredit the election process.
Now in a press statement issued on Sartuday January 9 and signed by Byabakama, the EC says it has noted the concerns expressed by various stakeholders over the restriction of use of cameras and other recording devices. Byabakama now says the EC will allow phones at polling stations but they must not be used for recording purposes or takin photographs inside the polling stations in the cordoned-off area.
The EC has also banned voters from displaying their choice of candidate by taking a photo or video of their marked ballot papers. This measure, the EC says, is in line with Article 68(1) of the constitution which provides for a secret ballot in presidential and parliamentary elections.
The EC has however permitted a voter or a candidate’s agent to take photographs or recordings of the vote counting process and take photographs or record the issued declaration of results (DR) form.
This new communication will come as a relief to most opposition candidates and parties who were concerned that the Commission was issuing directives to prohibit measures that would allow for transparency during the voting process.
In the new guidelines, the Commission says that media personnel who have been accredited to cover the elections will be permitted to access polling stations and may take photographs of the voting process but from outside the cordoned off area in a manner that protects the privacy of the voters and the secrecy of the ballot.
EC however remains adamant on the issue of barring voters from staying at polling stations after casting their vote in order to witness vote counting and tallying. This directive, the EC chairperson noted, is to prevent crowding in order to control the spread of COVID-19.
However several opposition parties and candidates have vowed to defy this order and have asked their voters to ignore it.
Although the EC had also earlier required journalists to clear with the Media Council before it can accredit them to cover the 2021 general elections, they have rescinded the position.
In the latest circular by the EC vice chairperson, Hajjat Aisha Lubega to city and district returning officers, the commission has issued guidance on the criteria needed to accredit journalists who wish to cover the forthcoming general election.
According to the circular, all journalists who wish to cover the electoral process will be granted access as long as they have identification from their media houses.
“Media personnel will only be required to present a valid identification/press cards issued by their media houses, in order to access the polling stations and respective district/city tally centres,” the circular reads in part.
In December last year, the Electoral Commission had issued a statement indicating that the press would be required to prove that their registration status with the respective regulatory authorities before being accredited to cover the polls.
The statement came at the backdrop of the Media Council's directive requiring all journalists, both local and international, to register within seven days, for accreditation. Since then, there has been a heated debate on timeliness, justification, and relevancy of the Media Council which media scholars and experts say is working illegally as it is not fully constituted as the law requires.
The Uganda Editors Guild, an umbrella body that brings together editors, senior journalists, and scholars of journalism, petitioned the court seeking an order to restrain the media council and security organs from illegally and irrationally curtailing media and press freedom of journalists to cover the 2021 general election and other state events. Court had set January 10 to pronounce its self on the matter.
Robert Ssempala, the national coordinator of Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ), says the development gives hope to journalists as the said accreditation by the media council had a series of challenges including rejection of some journalists’ applications.
“Changing the rules of engagement in the middle of the process was not fair at all. We can only commend the Electoral Commission for this new development which we think will preserve media and individual journalists' rights,” says Ssempala.
Alex Atuhaire, a member of the executive of the Uganda Editors’ Guild, notes the Electoral Commission has taken the right decision. He, however, notes that the move is not related to their petition filed in court.
Atuhaire says that in court the Guild is challenging the Media Council’s illegal, and irregular registration and accreditation process which has far-reaching consequences even beyond the coverage of elections.