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A free press strengthens democracy

World Press Freedom day is observed every May 3 to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom and to honour journalists who have lost their lives in pursuit of their profession. We do this because freedom of expression, which encompasses freedom of the press, is a fundamental right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and nurturing a free and independent media is essential to our shared vision of a peaceful, prosperous, healthy, and democratic Uganda.

A free, independent, and professional press plays an essential role in democratic societies by holding governments accountable to the nation they are elected to serve. In the United States, and in many places around the world, the press fosters active debate, investigates important issues, and serves as a forum to express different points of view, particularly on behalf of those who are marginalized in society. When the press draws attention to issues of injustice and corruption, democracy is strengthened.

When the press educates the public about health or technology, democracy is strengthened.  When the press represents the various and nuanced facets of important issues, democracy is strengthened.

Journalists and other members of the media should be able to investigate, research, publish, and disseminate news, information, and opinions freely both online and off line without fear of arrest, harassment, or undue restrictions.

Sadly, in the past year, the Uganda chapter of the Human Rights Network for Journalists documented over 120 cases of violations of press freedoms.  These include cases of police brutality against journalists, closure of radio stations and print media houses, as well as reports of violence, intimidation, harassment, threatening telephone calls, and frivolous criminal charges against journalists.

When these events occur, and then pass uninvestigated and uncorrected by authorities, democracy is diminished.  As President Obama has stated, “No matter the cause, when journalists are intimidated, attacked, imprisoned, or disappeared, individuals begin to self-censor, fear replaces truth, and all of our societies suffer. A culture of impunity for such actions must not be allowed to persist in any country.”

All governments have a responsibility to honour the fundamental freedom of expression and protect citizens’ rights to free speech.  Governments must protect journalists from physical harm and intimidation, and when journalists are the victims of crimes, governments are responsible for investigating those crimes and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Likewise, journalists have the responsibility to gain and keep the trust of their readers and listeners. They have an obligation to ensure that reporting is as accurate as possible and demonstrate professionalism in correcting errors when they occur. They must report reliably, accurately, and with a sense of fairness and balance.

They must practise analytical reporting that examines the finer details and nuances of the truth and adopt – and accept nothing less than – high professional and ethical standards.
When the universal right to freedom of expression is denied, democratic ideals are diminished, meaningful political competition is constrained, economies stagnate, and the unfettered exchange of ideas and values through dialogue and debate is denied to the people whose voices should be heard.

The US government hopes for something better for Uganda.  We know that press freedom is essential to building free, healthy, vibrant societies.  Not just today, but throughout the year, we will continue to advocate for greater press freedoms and work toward the peaceful, prosperous, healthy, democratic future that Ugandan citizens aspire to and deserve.

The author is United States Ambassador in Uganda.

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