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UCC must promote free flow of ideas, not muzzle the messenger

In a strongly worded two-page letter, Godfrey Mutabazi, the executive director of the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC), the regulator of broadcast media, rebuked television and radio networks for what he called misrepresentation of content during live broadcasts of breaking news and main news bulletins intended to incite violence.

In a show of unprecedented raw government scrutiny and regulation, Mutabazi ordered several broadcast media houses to suspend ‘the errant’ producers and heads of programmes within three days. Should the affected media houses defy his ‘orders’ they are likely to have their licenses revoked in accordance with Section 41 of the Uganda Communication Commission Act.

Ironically this happened a few days to May 3, the World Press Freedom Day. Mutabazi is implicitly accusing the affected media houses of ‘political’ activism. Unfortunately, Mutabazi is also clothing his political activism in the thicket of the law under the guise of enforcing minimum broadcast standards.

He is quick to respond to matters where President Museveni’s government is cast in unfavourable light and very slow to move against bad taste broadcasts, sexual innuendos reeled off radio presenters’ mouths as early as 8.00am.

As a consequence, some parents have either had to switch off their car radio sets as they ferry children to schools to protect them from such innuendos or have been creative in responding to the young inquisitive listeners.

We have not seen Mutabazi swing into action on such matters. Media houses are being sanctioned for focusing on the ugly exchanges between security forces, Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine and his supporters during his arrest on April 29.

Mutabazi is accusing them of underplaying or overplaying stories and, for getting something wrong. News reporters and editors are human, and make mistakes. Correcting them is one of the core jobs of UCC. But UCC is treating media houses like the “enemy of the people.”

This is dangerous. Whereas the minimum broadcasting standards are included in schedule 4 of the Act, they are not specifically defined and courts or tribunals in Uganda have not particularly adjudicated on them, and therefore they remain open to interpretation by UCC or by Mutabazi.

Even the right to be heard before one is adjudged is a fundamental one, which is enshrined in both the Constitution and UCC Act.

However, Mutabazi became the complainant/accuser, prosecutor and judge when he arbitrarily ordered media houses to suspend producers and heads of programmes within three days. In essence he had found them guilty of breach of standards. UCC should know that any regulatory system for broadcast content must balance two sets of competing interests.

On the one hand, the purpose of this regulation is to prevent harmful, illegal or otherwise undesirable content being disseminated through the media. On the other, such a regulatory system must protect and promote the rights to freedom of expression and information, but not provide an opportunity for public officials to interfere with or harass the media, and should respect the professional choices of journalists and other media workers.

Achieving the appropriate balance between these interests is a delicate and complicated matter. And it is this balance that UCC has failed to achieve. UCC is an independent regulatory body, which ideally is supposed to protect the media from both direct government control, which could be abused, and from professional complacency.

UCC can achieve its regulatory objective in a democratic manner. For it to be effective, fair and to operate in the overall public interest, certain conditions must be met. Journalists and other media professionals must constantly strive to be highly professional, to remain aware of the evolving standards and to act in public interest.

UCC and other regulatory bodies must develop and interpret their codes of conduct in a manner that not only recognizes the power of the media to cause harm but also be responsive to the needs of the media, and the overriding imperative of freedom of expression and the need to promote free flow of information and ideas to the public.

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