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Press freedom in Uganda and democracy


There can’t be democracy in Uganda without a free press.

24th May 2013

When Uganda’s president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was in Kenya for the swearing in of President Uhuru Kenyatta, one could not help but notice in his speech the congratulatory tone for the Kenyan media in their reporting especially during the elections. How ironical it was coming from a man who’s relationship with the media has been that of patronage and intimidation. What was also laughable was Museveni a man who has been in power for decades lecturing on democracy and the role of the press. If you think Museveni values pressmen then you must be living in another planet, just ask veteran Ugandan Journalist Onyango Obbo. Human rights groups rank Uganda as one of the worst countries for journalist to work in.This coming from a country that is in the process of democratization.

So when East Africa’s longest serving president ordered his henchmen to shut down independent media outlets in Uganda early this week, it was not surprising. The question was when not if this will happen judging by the heat that the so called “Muhoozi project” was generating.It is quite easy to deduce from the ongoing political events in Uganda that Museveni wants his son to succeed him. It clearly brought out the underlying problems in Uganda as a fledgling democracy and challenges inherent in this process. Having nearly decimated long time opposition Chief Kiza Besigye, it seems Museveni has set his sight on his next target-the press.

When French philosopher Alexis Detocqueville outlined the fundamental principles of democracy, he noted free press as key to the realization of democracy. Detocqueville was writing at a time when America’s democracy was just beginning. Back home in Africa democratic ideals have been hampered largely by autocratic regimes who in most cases want to stay in power till they die. The role of free press is paramount in nurturing democracy.

To start with the press is the watchdog of the society. In most cases the press has the necessary resources and intellect to unearth scandals which the government wants to hide from the public. Second the press is the primary source of information to the masses. It is through the press that civic education can be successful. The press also connects the society with the government. Also the press in most cases keeps the government on check, this largely due to the fact that it monitors processes of government. While this may not entirely eliminate corruption, it serves as deterrence to those contemplating to involve themselves in corruption.

The events in Uganda therefore are unfortunate, a direct attack on democratic ideals and diminish any hope of Uganda democratizing any time in the future. With Uganda lacking any vibrant civil society, it is the press that has been playing the role of watchdog of the society.An assault on the media as a pillar of democracy is an assault on the right of all Ugandans as they journey towards a more democratic Uganda. It also reinforces the view of most human rights groups that Uganda continues to infringe on the freedom of press.

Fredrick Ochieng,Article 19 East Africa