Uganda has a vibrant media sector with more than 200 radio stations and 30 television networks. However, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and other organisations have raised press freedom concerns, such as the intimidation of journalists. In its profile of the country, RSF pointed out that many of the broadcast outlets belong to supporters or members of the state’s ruling party.
Tina Bettels-Schwabbauer, a TU Dortmund University academic and former European Journalism Observatory editor, speaks with Prof. Dr William Tayeebwa from Makerere University in Kampala about the state of press freedom in Uganda and the country’s ranking on the latest RSF global index. Here is an excerpt of her interview with Dr Tayeebwa.
Tina: In the RSF 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Uganda ranked 132 out of the 180 countries classified. What are the biggest threats to press freedom?
One of the best local monitors of press freedom is an organisation called the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda. Since 2011 it has been producing what is called a “Press Freedom Index Report” almost every year, in which it flags the major threats to press freedom in the country. Consistently, the major threat has been cited as the state security apparatuses, mainly the police force that routinely brutalises journalists, especially during political and other public events such as peaceful demonstrations.
The police and other security agencies evidently get instructions to act from the executive arm of the state. The other overt and direct threats are often outlined as local government officials, especially the Resident District Commissioners (RDCs), who extend executive oversight across the country. However, the more insidious threat is the self-censorship that is created over time in the hearts and minds of journalists to leave many stories untold. Over time, the space for discussing pertinent issues such as human rights, social justice, governance, and democracy has significantly reduced.
Tina: What can be done to strengthen press freedom and independent media in Uganda and other African countries?
At a macro level, there is hardly much that can be done since the extremism of the state and other controls, such as advertisers, are getting stronger. The best that can be done is to create alliances between African and Western media outlets to ensure that stories that would be censored (nationally) are told. Such initiatives are on the rise, such as the BBC Africa Action, Al Jazeera’s “Africa Direct, Innovate Africa, Africa Investigates”, and so on.
German’s Deutsche Welle has programs such as “Eco Africa” that cover the continent’s innovative best practices in environmental conservation and climate change. In addition to such initiatives, African storytellers continue to be empowered by new media tools offered by social media. When conventional channels are closed by the state and by business capture and control, Africans find new innovative ways to tell the stories. That, to me, is reassuring.
Tina: You have been researching radios in United Nations peacekeeping missions and conflict-sensitive reporting in Africa. How can formats like these enhance press freedom?
The African continent is still plagued by armed conflicts. One of the most recent and shocking is the Sudan armed skirmishes that broke out in the last week of April 2023. In such situations, only supranational bodies such as the United Nations and regional ones such as the African Union can stand in.
Wherever they work, they need communication tools to reach people with targeted messages, but also to provide impartial channels where all parties can hold open discussions towards common ground. Radio networks operated by UN missions as well as by other actors such as Fondation Hirondelle and Search for Common Ground provide platforms that are free from government control or capture by business and other interests. They indeed enhance the freedoms of the press and other freedoms.
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