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Journalists condemn Mutabazi 'madness'

Godfrey Mutabazi

Godfrey Mutabazi

Ugandan journalists working at parliament have condemned the "madness" of Ugandan Communications Commission (UCC) executive director Godfrey Mutabazi over his directive requiring media houses to suspend their staff.

On Wednesday, UCC ordered six televisions and seven radio stations to suspend their staff over alleged breach of minimum broadcasting standards. The affected media houses are; NTV, NBS TV, BBS TV, Bukedde TV, Kingdom TV and Salt TV. Others are; Akaboozi FM, Beat FM, Capital FM, CBS FM, Pearl Fm, Sapientia FM and Radio Simba. 

The media houses were ordered to suspend producers, heads of news, and heads of program. A total of 39 staff at the accused media houses could be affected if this directive is implemented.     

The Uganda Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA) has said ”without mincing words, we would like to candidly say that Mutabazi’s ridiculous threats and directives to the media houses are acts of madness. He could be suffering from a mental disorder and therefore deserves to be take to Butabika hospital for a checkup.” in a press statement. 

UPPA president, Moses Mulondo said it is unfortunate that UCC is failing to understand and appreciate the watchdog role of the media. He said by providing live coverage, for instance, the media doesn’t not promote any crime but rather informs and alerts the public.

Mulondo says because the freedom to protest has been curtailed in Uganda, government sees media as a threat not because it is breaking any law, but covering protests. UCC's trouble with the media stems from this week's Monday coverage of the arrest of Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine and the subsequent protests in several parts of the city suburbs. Kyagulanyi has called for mass protests against President Yoweri Museveni's government. 

Mulondo called on all Ugandans to stand up against the directives and threats against the media.

"The freedom to protest is also guaranteed by our constitution and all other constitutions of other countries of every civilized society. And you have been hearing concerns regarding this matter that right now the Uganda Police is misusing the the Public Order Management Act to curtail the freedoms of other actors especially the opposition." Mulondo said. 

Adding: "For us as journalists, we act for all stakeholders including the opposition, including the NRM. So when we see the rights of opposition leaders violated we have to show the public that this is what is happening. And I think this is what engineer Mutabazi doesn’t want us to do."

The Uganda Journalists Association (UJA) also issued a statement urging UCC to stop its attack on the media. In a statement issued by UJA president Kazibwe Bashir Mbazira, UJA urged UCC to withdraw its suspension, but also respect rights of journalists and the role of the media.

“We call for future engagements between the regulators and operators in the media. To the media fraternity, this is a time that we ought to speak out further and louder in unity as a body” Kazibwe said in the statement.

Other activists and human rights organizations have also condemned UCC's directives. In a joint statement, Chapter Four Uganda, Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET) and Freedom of Expression HUB  say the actions of UCC to the media is illegitimate and is aimed at narrowing freedom of expression.

They demanded that the board of directors of UCC should stop Mutabazi from issuing orders beyond his statutory scope.

“The executive director immediately withdraws his orders to all the affected media houses directing them to suspend their staff” the statement reads.

They also urged UCC to stop usurping Uganda Media Council’s power to resolve journalistic practice and ethics. They also want the ministry of Information and Communications Technology to institute a tribunal to look into UCC’s directives.

MORE CONDEMNATIONS 

The Africa Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) also issued a statement, asking UCC to correct its mistake by rescinding the order and issue an apology to Ugandans. 

According to ACME, UCC is sending signals that curtailing programming critical of government abuses has been upped. ACME further said that the sheer scale and reach of the UCC directive brings into question the regulator’s motives.     

“It is not as if when journalists carry live feed of an egregiously brutal arrest of a prominent public figure they are making up the story. Over the years, UCC has acted cynically with the aim of controlling, not regulating, the broadcast industry.”     

The statement further reads; “Its latest directive will cripple news gathering operations, hamper the free flow of news and other information, and trigger a chilling effect on the media industry as a whole.”     

ACME said that is disturbing that UCC issued its infamous directive in the week when journalists are celebrating World Press Freedom Day. World Press Freedom Day will be celebrated today, Friday May 3. 

Amnesty International described UCC's directive as a blatant arrack on press freedom. 

“This order from Uganda’s Communications Commission represents a blatant attack on press freedom and a lamentable tendency towards state censorship,” Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, Sarah Jackson said in a statement.

“The Ugandan authorities must immediately rescind this decision and end the harassment and intimidation of journalists and media houses. Journalists must be allowed to freely do their job.” she added.  

MUTABAZI DEFENDS DIRECTIVE

But Mutabazi hit back at his critics, saying they don't know the law on regulation of the media. He also said that for long, media houses in Uganda are used to a situation of not being under any form of regulation. He also accused the media of failing to analyze and bring out the facts that Bobi Wine is being used by external forces to destabilize the country. According to Mutabazi, the media is focusing on the wrong message. 

"They [critics] do not know how regulators work. Look at Kenya, look at how regulators work. Read the law, those activists who do not how the law works, you read the law of the regulator…Look at Kenya, look at Tanzania, look at UK, look at America. They are the same laws, we’re just not used to a culture of regulation here. But the most important thing here is who is influencing this one [Bobi Wine]? Is it a Ugandan or this thing coming from abroad. Who has that interest in destabilizing Uganda? Why don’t you go into those things."

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) on Thursday asked UCC to rescind the suspension directive. NAB chairman, Kin Karisa also owner of NBS TV, one of the affected media houses, wrote to Mutabazi saying that effecting the “abrupt suspension of key staff on orders of UCC will have adverse consequences” on operations of media houses. 

But Mutabazi said that he had not received the NAB letter. Mutabazi said that broadcasters have refused to adhere to conditions requiring them to have equipment that edits foul language and statements that incite violence during live broadcasts. The regulator, he said only intervenes when stations live broadcast programmes deemed to “misrepresent information, views, facts and events in a manner likely to mislead or cause alarm to the public.”     

Veteran journalist Charles Onyango Obbo said in a tweet that UCC's "actions is regulatory overreach at its worst. If we aren't careful, this means that Bank of Uganda can fire staff in banks it regulates, or the Uganda Coffee Development Authority can tell coffee growers who to employ on their plantations."

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd