When Uganda’s electoral commission announced that starting from June all electoral campaigning must take place online and through the media due to Covid-19 restrictions, a pivotal role was, at least symbolically, assigned to the country’s journalists and media outlets.

But as next year’s presidential elections approach, scheduled for early 2021, this new system has deepened concerns over whether the media will enjoy the freedom to report impartially and independently on the potential challengers lining up to take on long-term leader Yoweri Museveni.

Last year a poll found that while 70 percent of Ugandans believed the media should be able to report freely, only 37 percent trusted election-related coverage. This finding is not surprising as the ruling National Resistance movement and President Yoweri Museveni have long sought to stifle criticism and gag opposition reporting.

Robert Ssempala, national coordinator of the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ),  told IPI that the upcoming vote has intensified the “undue pressures and direct interference” that journalists experience from Uganda’s government.

Bureaucratic interference

Most recently, this interference comes disguised as a new registration requirement set out by the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC). On September 7th, the UCC released a public notice stating that all persons involved in the ‘provision of online data’, including bloggers and influential social media presences, were required to apply for UCC authorization by October 5th or else halt their services.

Therefore, aside from needing to pay a daily Over the Top (OTT) tax for the use of social media platforms, one will now need UCC authorization to start a live video on social media.

Though the commission claims that this new requisite is “intended to promote and safeguard the interest of consumers”, it infringes on the right to freedom of speech and impairs political opponents’ social media campaigns.

Speaking to IPI, Ssempala said that “this drastic measure is not intended to regulate, but rather control social media and surveil voices of dissent. By caging social media platforms, the government ensures that there is no space whatsoever that the opposition can use.

In the run up to the media-only elections, the administration has also begun restricting radio broadcasts which, according to the survey, represents the primary news source for 80 percent of Ugandans.

In July, the UCC introduced a “revised radio framework” and demanded that all “radio broadcasters… submit fresh applications for radio broadcasting licenses by July 31, 2020”.

Although the UCC explained that this was due to the “current regime being outdated”, the initiative has come at a time when opposition candidates are relying exclusively on the media to broadcast their public appeals and is very short-notice.

The National Association of Broadcasters said that application deadline made it difficult for many broadcasters to comply in due time. Such untimeliness, as Ssempala explained to IPI, is intentional and meant to “scare” radio houses into compliance.

He added that the regulation came shortly after President Museveni’s complaints that radio stations were giving the opposition party, People Power, too much airtime.

It is not the first time that the UCC has used ‘licensing requirements’ as a pretext to control the media and silence the opposition. Prior to the 2016 presidential elections, for example, Endigito FM was suspended for its alleged failure to meet “license conditions” after it aired an interview with an opposition candidate.

Similarly, last year the UCC ordered over a dozen media organizations to suspend their journalists and media workers following their coverage of leading opposition candidate Bobi Wine, blatantly stifling press freedom.

Since 2014, these UCC licensing conditions have also required broadcasters to provide free airtime for government programmes, which The Rural Broadcasters Association (RUBA) unsuccessfully protested against.

Ssempala concluded that this radio registration requirement was no different from past UCC interferences and was “politically motivated and intended to undermine media houses”.

The new broadcasting license regulation also bears a striking resemblance to the government’s use of Uganda’s Press and Journalism Act to restrict the number of local and foreign journalists operating in the country. The accreditation scheme requires all foreign journalists to submit a cover letter indicating their purpose of work in Uganda and pay fees to the Media Council in order to receive permission to practice journalism.

While the Media Council claims that this scheme is intended to give credibility to journalists, the Foreign Correspondents Association in Uganda has reported that various journalists’ applications have been rejected inexplicably. These “selectively applied laws”, as Ssempala described them, are an attempt to stifle press freedom when it suits the incumbent government.

In many cases, Ssempala continued, despite fulfilling all criteria, local radio stations are granted only ‘provisional licenses’, so as to make it easier for the UCC to revoke them if need be.

It is also worth mentioning that many local Ugandan journalists oppose such accreditation schemes or even refuse to abide by them, fearing that the Media Council would exploit their personal data or passport details for political reasons. Ssempala suggested that many of the political figures within the Media Council “do not hold journalists’ best interests at hand”.

Intimidation and espionage

Journalists and media houses are also often intimidated into avoiding political or high-risk topics altogether. As a 2019 report published in the International Journal of Communication indicates, the threat of harassment, assault, or detainment often leads to Ugandan journalists self-censoring.

According to the general secretary of the Uganda Journalists Union, Stephen Ouma Bwire, journalists are often “beaten and tortured, under flimsy, trumped or fabricated charges and sometimes detained incommunicado. Journalists are frequently charged with publication of false news, defamation, offensive communication, computer misuse, incitement and sectarianism”. He said that reprisals are most commonly suffered by “journalists who cover politics, opposition groups or people with divergent views”. The Resident District Commissioners (RDCs) arrest journalists “under directives or orders from above”, he added.

Ssempala said this had naturally resulted in “a lot of attention being devoted to relatively safe stories” and not much critical content being covered, as few journalists are willing to endure the reprisals that follow.

Ouma also claimed that “the number of undercover government spies pretending to be journalists within media organizations is growing at an alarming rate” ahead of the 2021 elections and that the objective of these fake journalists is to discredit bonafide journalists, as well as to confine media coverage to government-approved topics.

In addition to its intimidation of local journalists, the Ugandan government has also resorted to discrediting  foreign journalists who attempt to work in Uganda by accusing  them of espionage. The fear, of course, is that these journalists would project a negative image of Uganda’s government and the country’s media landscape.

Ouma concluded: “The claims that foreign journalists are spies are untrue, baseless and unfounded, and only aimed at suppressing independent and critical media, hence altogether muzzle press freedom”.