However, literature on the country’s media system is full of reports of interference in media freedom and journalists’ autonomy. This is the other side of the coin which “Uganda qualifies as a hybrid regime promoting civil rights and political liberties and, unpredictably, curtailing those same rights and liberties with negative consequences for the broadcast media’s growth and development” (Maractho, 2015: 16). The IREX Media Sustainability Index 2012, for example, named the temporary closure of radio stations in 2009, difficulties with licensing for government critics, cases of harassing journalists and damaging their equipment, the questioning of journalists at police headquarters over stories the government deemed critical, taboos such as security issues and terrorism, biased coverage on homosexuality, corruption, and pressure from advertising clients, of which the government is by far the biggest one (IREX, 2012: 422-431). Besides politics and the economy, there is a great temptation to follow religious leaders and to cover faith-based events as a way to “gain credibility and trust, and thus readership” or listeners (Bompani & Brown, 2015: 117).
Highlighting both the “use of the courts of law to pile pressure on nosy journalists and force them to self-censor” and “the targeting of the Daily Monitor as a salutary ‘lesson’ to other publications and to the government’s political opponents”, Bernard Tabaire (2007: 206-207) even drew parallels between the first regime of Milton Obote in the 1960s and Museveni. “The rendering of the press as an enemy of Uganda, as unpatriotic, and the whole notion of criminalization of dissent”, would not only characterize the two governments but also the presidents themselves.
In literature, this absolute contradiction to the ideals as outlined in international conventions and adopted to a great deal in Uganda’s constitution and the government’s public rhetoric, is explained by several factors. Firstly, there is “a fluid legal regime and a plethora of laws, riddled with gaps, governing media and weakening media institutions” (Maractho, 2015: 14). According to Emilly Comfort Maractho (2015: 16), the legal framework “has left loopholes which are often exploited by non-designated regulators” such as the Resident District Commissioners, the police and the public. A quite new example is the Anti-Pornography Act signed by Museveni in 2014. Second, regulatory and control authorities such as the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and the Media Council have been criticized for both their closeness to the government and for aiming mostly at media content and, thus, protecting those in power (IREX, 2012: 425; Maractho, 2015: 17; Odongo, 2012; Brisset-Foucault, 2013; Lowry, 2013; Jjuuko, 2015). Last but not least, the profession itself is named as a reason for media freedom interferences. The range of criticism includes poor education and training (Schiffrin, 2010), the absence of self-regulation (Maractho, 2015: 16), a code of ethics that “has been not effective, as it is supposed to apply only to journalists” and not to non-journalists that are engaged in media practice (Nassanga, 2008: 660), low payment and “the disparity in pay between editors and lower-level reporters” harming the profession’s reputation, and “journalists caught accepting bribes from sources” having the very same effect (IREX, 2012: 423). According to Freedom House, Uganda has a “partly free” press. In 2016, the country’s score declined from 56 to 57 “due to increased government pressure on media outlets regarding coverage of political events, along with a growth in bribery in exchange for favourable election-related reporting” (Freedom House, 2016). In the World Press Freedom Index 2016, Uganda was ranked 102, five positions worse than in 2015. Reporters Without Borders explained that deterioration with events in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. For example, media outlets that covered opposition campaigns would have been threatened with closure (https://rsf.org/en/uganda).
Today, the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) is officially public but state-controlled. Although the Uganda Communications Act 2013 aimed at “reducing the direct role of government as an operator in the communications sector und minimising the subsidies paid by the government” (Kimumwe, 2014: 50), the state is still UBC’s principal donor. The license fee is suspended. In addition, the members of the regulatory board (UCC) are appointed by the Minister of Information and National Guidance. The UCC is also asked to “comply with the policy guidelines given by the minister” (Kiumumwe, 2014: 51). Regarding print media, a number of them are also “partly state-owned, particularly via the New Vision Group” that publishes the English language daily New Vision, for example (Jjuuko, 2015: 3).
Besides state-controlled and state-owned media, there are numerous privately owned radio stations, commercial television including the market leader NTV Uganda which is a subsidiary of Nation Media Group and went on air in 2006, two English language dailies operating independent from the state (Daily Monitor and Red Pepper also belonging to Nation Media Group), dailies, weeklies and magazines published in vernacular languages, and media regulation authorities, which arguably ensure that the media are held accountable for their actions (Tettey, 2006: 237). In addition to the traditional channels, since all major media houses maintain Twitter and Facebook “with teams assigned full time to running the services on the platforms”, social media is important today (Jjuuko, 2015: 5). Consistent with these structures of constellations is the considerable appreciation for Western journalism concepts (cf. Shaw, 2009). According to Peter G. Mwesige (2004: 92), based on a 2001 survey which covered about one-fifth of the profession back then, Ugandan news people “have embraced a conceptualization of independent journalism at the core of which is information, entertainment, analysis and interpretation, as well as giving ordinary people a voice”.
With a view to the users, radio is still Uganda’s most important mass media channel. Almost all people have access to a radio set. However, particularly in the capital Kampala, television is not a minority channel anymore. The mobile internet and above all, social media platforms are also on the advance. This is especially true for young, male, educated, English-speaking and higher income Ugandans. However, internet penetration on the countryside is on the rise, with cheap Chinese smart phones making communication via Whatsapp possible. People’s thematic interests and consumption behaviour are not so different from the rest of the world. While males are rather interested in sports including Premier Soccer League broadcasts and politics, females prefer offers in the areas of family and relationships. Young people also expect educative programmes giving guidance in business management, job search, and health care (cf. Fiedler & Meyen, 2016).
The best example for the contempt for media freedom was provided by John Nagenda who was born in 1938 and is still named a Senior Presidential Adviser. In the interview, Nagenda called the Daily Monitor his “enemy” since the newspaper would have four or five journalists “who never say something good about the government”. To be more specific, Nagenda mentioned an old story where the Daily Monitor “said that the president, his wife and his bodyguard had hired a Concorde to take them from New York to London”. There would have been no evidence for this waste of state resources, and Nagenda is still proud that the journalists in charge “had to spend the weekend in prison” because the court was already closed at Friday afternoon. “It is a crime to be abusive towards the president”. According to Nagenda, Museveni himself writes letters and articles to be published in the press. At the day of the interview, the daily New Vision, for example, printed a long Museveni piece about homosexuality leaving no doubt about his aversion. It is not surprising, then, that many interviewed journalists regard the president as taboo. “He has said himself, ‘If you attack my family, then there is no compromise’”, said an NTV news editor. In addition, he mentioned military, army, and national security as taboos, “Because we have all these threats like Al-Shabbab or South Sudan”. Similar statements can be found in almost all interview transcripts. Peter Mwesige told us, that it is not just the Uganda Communications Commission which calls media houses and warns them if reporters, editors, or lay-people in call-in shows approach taboos or report about something “which could insult the public and put Uganda in a bad light”. “Sometimes the president himself calls a newspaper manager”.
In this climate of opinion, the media regulation authorities assume that media freedom and media laws in Uganda go too far. Pius Mwinganisa, the Media Council’s secretary general, was not too much concerned about the ratings from organizations such as Freedom House, IREX, and Reporters Without Borders. People in Uganda would be free to write whatever they wish, especially the journalists. “They have too much freedom because they are not managing themselves. Freedom goes with responsibility.” Mwinganisa justified the media authorities’ permanent interventions with the history of the country (“We are still a young nation”), with external threats (“Our security takes priority sometimes”), and in particular with the low professionalization level. “Sometimes the journalists make stories using the picture of a person who has nothing to do with the story. We have also politicians raising concerns. The media judge very fast but there is a difference between a suspect and a convict. In these cases we work with the court. We have also complaints about pornographic stuff. Especially the tabloid papers are doing it. They don’t care about the children.”
It is easy to see through the profound belief in the power of media that lies behind that narration. Knowing about “the Kenyan example” and “the ever present Rwandese trauma”, this is especially valid for local radios. In Uganda, “the belief is widely shared that journalism and political speech in vernacular languages are more likely to create disorder” (Brisset-Foucault, 2013: 84). Many of the interviewees mentioned the shutdown of four radio stations including the Buganda Kingdom owned CBS in September 2009 although that issue was not in the interview guideline. Reflecting “the despair of the poor urban youth as well as the exasperation against a 25-year-old regime” and today usually called the Buganda riots (Brisset-Foucault, 2013: 84), the corresponding events were reframed as media-driven by the government back then. However, present in the collective memory of the journalistic profession, the sudden shutdown in the case of undesired coverage hangs like a Sword of Damocles over the media since then. During the Buganda riots the journalists have learned, again, that media freedom is less important than the survival of those in power.
However, backed by the open-minded atmosphere of all expert interviews, people in Uganda appreciate the freedom in their country. The benchmarks for this are the neighbouring states (in particular South Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya) but not Europe or the US. Due to the natural conditions, welfare benefits such as free access to elementary education or primary health care and the political stability linked to Museveni’s regime, Ugandans are proud of their country. Their top priority is not media freedom but the challenges of coping with everyday life, above all the labour market, the systems of health care and education, and peace. For many Ugandans, Museveni and his government are part of their pride. They are in line with the policy against homosexuality and pornography and consider media rather as trouble makers than as important part of political processes worth to be protected.
The values hierarchy favouring jobs, health and security comes along with low media literacy. “This country is politically lethargic”, said one of Daily Monitor’s managing editors. “A lot of the guys are not interested in politics. I mean, English football is a big deal here. For the women, there are all these telenovelas, Mexican soaps and blah-blah. People simply don’t read the newspapers. Their main source of information is the radio. Especially in the countryside the literacy level is really low.” Part of that story is that too few Ugandans care about media content. “We feed the masses”, said a parliamentary reporter. “The people out there believe in everything what they hear from the media houses, even if it is false information.” Another journalist mainly working for a rural radio station and the daily New Vision talked about people who don’t want to give interviews. “If I am to go and seek an interview with somebody, they are going to run away.” This may reflect, again, a profound belief in media power and a self-overestimation of the journalists’ relative societal position.
The climate of opinion conducive to interventions in media freedom provides the government with the best conditions for limiting journalists’ autonomy and the unequal spreading of media ownership and resources. For the very same reason, advertising clients (including the government) can obviously exert influence on media enterprises. In other words, the lack of public pressure against media freedom violations strengthens laws favouring NRM actors, media regulation authorities, and economically strong actors.
Many of the interviewed journalists and media activists complained about the ownership structure. The vast majority of commercial and state-independent outlets would belong to politicians closely tied to the NRM or other parties, business man with commercial interests or religious institutions. The just quoted New Vision editor reported that all four radio stations in his home district “belong to politicians, except of one that is owned by the church”. It would be easy to imagine the journalism which is practiced there. “They will attack the opponents; they will praise their own politician”. According to several interviewees, some journalists are even on the payrolls of politicians. These structures are compounded by another problem mentioned by the Uganda Journalists Union official: “That is why the politicians hesitate to implement all these progressive laws” protecting media freedom and improving journalists’ working conditions. Matching this are the reports about the 2011 election campaign. “There was a journalist who called the president stupid”, said a radio deputy director. “They took him off air immediately. The UCC is monitoring us strongly. They are listening to the program. One day, right after a show we had people from the UCC here. They claimed that we would air terrorists. We had to explain to them that it was just a joke.”
A second type of ownership is just commercial oriented. “Those people are not interested in informing the people”, said the rural radio journalist. “For them, it’s just a business opportunity. That’s why the ad industry is affecting us. For example, if you have a bank as an advertiser, it is very hard to do critical stories about it.” The big media houses face the very same problem. A news editor working with NTV talked about the (maybe fictional) example of a brewing company “which has signed with you a 250.000 US dollar deal. You will never do a bad story on them. Maybe they are releasing some dirty water into Lake Victoria, and you cannot investigate this story. Our leading advertiser is the government. It can really squeeze you.” Consequences are self-censorship (IREX, 2012: 426), a media landscape which is “neither diverse nor independent” (Maractho, 2015: 21), and authorities which feel encouraged to extend their competence. For example, some media experts talked about media crime divisions at the police. “They listen to all the radios, they read the newspapers, and they watch the TV. They look how the media cover certain events. You can be jailed as an editor if you defame someone criminally” (managing editor, Daily Monitor).
Again, the main reason are informal structures of expectations. As Peter Mwesige puts it, the problem “is the lack of media literacy”. “Many people don’t have the knowledge of how the media should work. They don’t know if it is good or bad that a newspaper is shut down. They don’t complain about the coverage about a company which donated five computers. They don’t see that brown envelopes are corruption because they think they have to pay the journalists for their opinions being published.” Mwesige’s second point was a political culture built with citizens not educated and very poor. “In Uganda, media exposure does not necessarily mean that there is going to be responsiveness.” However, precisely because this point is about political education and participation, the country’s informal structures of expectations are not written in stone. Almost all interviewed media experts said that the profession’s situation today is better than some 20 years ago. An NTV business editor substantiated this with international observation and “technological developments” such as the arrival of the internet. “In the 1990s, we had cases with security forces raiding media houses and journalists being beaten. Today, before raiding a media house, they know the story is already on social media.”
Although the professionalization level of Ugandan journalists is met with criticism on part of national and international observers, the dominant role perception fits with Western structures of expectations. As in 2001, the journalists highly value the “functions of information, analysis and interpretation and investigation of official claims” (Mwesige, 2004: 69) and the idea of being ‘the voice of the voiceless’. However, local (formal and informal) structures of expectations and structures of constellations prevent the media from reaching its aim.
In Uganda, the desire to become a journalist seems to be identical to Europe or the US. The Department of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University, for example, has 500 undergraduates at the moment. “We are second, after law”, said William Tayeebwa. “We take only nine per cent of the students who apply.” Holding a PhD from a Canadian university, Tayeebwa’s lectures are about a profession which is “able to check power, to be the voice of the voiceless, to serve our society, to raise issues”. This is, of course, also true for his colleagues at Makarere and elsewhere and in line with foreign donor funded training programs (Schiffrin, 2010). Grave difference however is the length of stay within the profession. Because of low wages and the uncertainties described above, many young people see journalism just as a springboard to better paid positions in politics, economy, or NGOs. “Media are an avenue to politics”, said the already quoted parliamentary reporter. “Many journalists hope to become leaders because everybody knows them. In Uganda, politics is valued as one of the income generating jobs.”
Therefore, journalism is a profession that can neither learn from tradition nor “from the experience and wisdom of the veterans” (Mwesige, 2004: 91). In 1970, there was no training institution for journalists in the country and shortly thereafter Idi Amin banned all foreign newspapers from circulating in Uganda (Isoba, 1980: 232). On the one hand, the fact that “journalism as a profession is still young in Uganda” (female editor at state-controlled UBC radio) and still very small too, explains a lot of the country’s structures of expectations. One NGO worker estimated the number of Ugandan journalists at 1.000 to 1.500. On the other hand, the economic situation, the lack of appreciation of media quality, and, closely linked to the former as well as to the latter, the lack of willingness to pay a reasonable price for it lead to a sharp divide between role perceptions mentioned in surveys and everyday reality in journalistic work. In addition, personal fame comes one way or another. “People take us as semi-gods” said a female radio presenter who has been working for a Christian station since 2008. Despite her prominence, it would be “hard to get news. We can’t afford transport fees to go to press conferences. Some political parties pay your fees. So, every journalist will come and the coverage is not balanced any more. The next point is salaries. I get the same right now which I got before getting married and having children. As a field reporter, I have to cover five stories a day in order to survive. So, we call other media houses about their stories and just copy them. And then, we have to look for advertisement all the time.” According to one ACME employee, “Every Ugandan journalist would say, ‘I’m a public watchdog’. But there are a lot of stories where they have been compromised.”
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- John Nagenda, Senior Presidential Adviser on Media & Public Relations and regular columnist for New Vision
- Pius Mwinganisa, secretary general, Media Council
- Chris Obore, information director of the Ugandan parliament
- Moses Watasa, Communication Commissioner, Ministry of Information and National Guidance
- Fred Otunnu, Director of Corporate Affairs, UCC
- Four Newspaper editors (Daily Monitor: one managing editor, one business editor, New Vision: one feature editor, one freelancer working off Kampala)
- Five radio journalists and program directors (Christian Radio Network, Impact FM, UBC Radio, Capitol FM which are all located in Kampala and Radio Rainbow in Nebbi)
- Two TV journalists (NTV, Nation Media Group, Kampala: one business editor and one news editor)
- Three magazine journalists (The East African Digest and The Independent, Kampala)
- Five NGO workers (African Centre for Media Excellence, ACME, committed to excellence in journalism and mass communication in Africa; Human Rights Network for Journalists; Parliament Watch)
- Three unionists and functionaries (International Association of Women working with Radio and TV, Uganda Parliamentary Press Association, Uganda Journalists Union)
- Three academics including William Tayeebwa, at the time acting head of the Department of Journalism and Communication, Makarere University, Kampala
Recommended Citation Form
Michael Meyen: Uganda. In: In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. http://mappingmediafreedom.de/uganda/ (access date)
Kerem Schamberger at Makerere University in Kampala, the leading journalism school in Uganda (Foto: Michael Meyen, 2014)