After clamping down on FM radio stations, the government has now turned its guns on newspapers with a grand plot that will suffocate journalists. The Press and Journalist (Amendment) Bill, 2010, now understood to be before Cabinet, will require newspapers to be annually licensed.
Alarmed by the draconian character of the bill, a network of media houses and non-governmental organisations has strongly rejected the proposed amendments, calling them excessive, authoritarian and contrary to the spirit of the Constitution.
The network, Article 29 Coalition (A29C), said in a statement that it was ironical that while it was still pushing for reforms in regulation of the electronic media, the government has extended the same draconian control measures to the print media.
Article 29 of the Uganda Constitution, after which the network is named, says in section 1(a) that: "Every person has a right to freedom of expression and this includes freedom of the press and other media." MACHIAVELLIAN
The bill, however, does not seem to have any respect for that constitutional provision. According to A29C, the proposed amendments seek to impose a Machiavellian type of control over the media.
While previously newspapers were required to register with the General Post Office, they will now have to be registered by and seek annual licences from the Media Council, whose chairman will now be appointed by the relevant minister.
Before being licensed, newspapers must prove that they have sound technical facilities. The council will also have powers to cancel a newspaper license for various reasons, including publishing material that is deemed to endanger national security, unity, stability or foreign relations.
A29C says these provisions are clear landmines that could be used by the government to hit critical publications. "To require the licensing of newspapers means the government through the Media Council would now have the power to revoke or refuse to renew the licence at will, which is the situation with broadcasting. This is very dangerous," the A29C statement said.
Dr. George Lugalambi, the chairperson of Article 29 Members' Assembly, said he was not surprised by the government's latest move against media freedoms.
"What has surprised us is the gravity of the proposals in the bill," Lugalambi said at the weekend, adding that the provisions were informed by government's desire to control the media.
This exclusionary control mindset also explains new requirements for publishers to have sound equipment. He noted that some of the publications that exposed human rights abuses during previous regimes, such as Munnansi, were produced with rudimentary technology.
"Broadly speaking, they are trying to narrow the scope of public expression and debate; it serves their interest if there are fewer outlets," he said.
Information Minister, Kabakumba Masiko, could not be reached for comment as she did not answer her phone at the weekend. Her ICT colleague, Aggrey Awori, who was involved in preparing the controversial bill, could also not reached by telephone.