One of the outcomes the riots that recently rocked Kampala is what many in the media fraternity say is the receding shoreline of media freedoms.
The particulars are that four FM radio stations were switched off air for what the Uganda Broadcasting Council said was failure to adhere to the minimum broadcasting standards.
This action has been perceived as a government crackdown on media freedoms. However, it offers us an opportunity to renew the debate on media freedoms in Uganda from 1986 to date.
The relative press freedom in Uganda is the result of the experience and spirit of the armed rebel movement that mothered the political leadership in power to day.
During the armed struggle, the rebel movement pursued what they called a policy of ‘open criticism and open debate’ as a tool to resolve disagreements. It is this openness they brought to government when they assumed state power in 1986. This formed the basis for a deliberate government deportment to run an open administration.
Needless to say, this posture was the basis for the liberalisation of the electronic media and the resurgent influence of the print media on social and political behaviour.
What is now viewed as the receding shoreline of press freedom is therefore merely an administrative action without any long-term effect on the spirit or the thinking of the people.
For instance, the government needs bimeeza (community open-air field broadcasts) as much as the opposition (perceived or real). It is worth noting that these bimeeza had become part of the NRM mobilisation strategy that they too (NRM) will feel denuded without them.
The bimeeza (and other innovations like call-in formats of guest-host radio talk shows) offered the only way to identify and develop political cadres (they are now called activists). I can bet my white bull that they bimeeza will return (in a different form or otherwise).
The 1995 Uganda Constitution was very clear on interest political groups to wit: all political parties must have a national character qualified by a demonstrable existence of support in two thirds of all the districts of Uganda. This provision was aimed to avoid Kabaka Yeka type of self-interest political movements of the early 60s.
The main aspect in the debate on media freedoms in Uganda now is therefore the challenge to reconcile the media’s traditional role as the vehicle of civil and civic awareness and what I will refer to as the emergence of ‘interest journalism’, if I am allowed to coin a phrase. And how did we reach here?
In the absence of organised political groups between 1986 and 2006 (non-partisan Movement Era), the media was viewed by the political leadership as a function of political (almost ideological) mobilisation.
That is how what Charles Onyango-Obbo calls the Political Commentariat evolved as a force in the media and Uganda’s body politic. However, the political elite could only be tolerant to the media in so far as there was no organised political contest at the time.
When competitive political contests resurfaced in 1996, the media had generated a lot of public interest (and it had itself gained a politically acceptable stature) in public affairs. The major friction between media and the state therefore no longer derived from the flimsy cases of defamation but the influence of civic and civil attitudes.
So, the gist of the debate on press freedoms in Uganda now is whether the media should play the role of a passive rapporteur or that of an ‘interested functionary’ in the socio-political dynamics.
The problem however lies in the ideological construction of the body politic. Without any conspicuous ideological differences among political groups, The thinking of Buganda (or Mengo) offers what looks like an ideological model of political mobilisation. It is therefore not surprising that all political groups (even the ruling NRM) have tended to gravitate to Mengo.
And that is why all Luganda vernacular media outlets (print and electronic) have Mengo-leaning editorial content or posture to tap into what I have called ‘The Thinking of Buganda’ to enrich their acceptability. The question then is: how can the media survive in such circumstances?
The media must reconcile its traditional role of being the avante guarde constituent of the functional civil society with the realities of socio-political dynamics obtaining on the ground. It is all about judgment; and it is my personal assessment that Central Broadcasting Services (CBC), Mengo’s very influential FM radio, failed on balancing this act.
Here is the rider: With the liberalisation of the media, the control and dissemination of information is no longer the exclusive preserve of the state. This has rendered the state as merely ‘first among equals’ in the field. However, information as a constituent tool for rallying the nation for policy absorption and conscientious national consciousness remains the responsibility of the state.