An anthropologist's take on Uganda and the Great Lakes region...

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Review- A Media Minefield (HRW Report)

I have just finished reading HRW's new report on Uganda's media, 'A Media Minefield'. The full report can be downloaded here.
The report's main argument is that 'freedom of expression across the country is in significant jeopardy' (p. 2), as the government seeks to rescind some of the media freedoms it introduced following its accession to power in 1986. The argument is that the government is making these moves in the run-up to this year's general election, in an attempt to stifle opposition campaigning on both urban and rural media outlets.
The basic tenets of this argument are sound, and there is little doubt that media freedoms have been gradually eroded in Uganda over the last few years. In addition, the government has increasingly sought to displace criticism of its own actions onto the media. In the most recent example, President Museveni had Monitor group Managing Editor Daniel Kalinaki and Sunday Monitor Editor Henry Ochieng arrested for 'forgery'. The charges related to a letter that Museveni himself had written to the Bunyoro Kingdom - promising to 'ring-fence' certain elected offices for ethnic Banyoro - which the Sunday Monitor had later published. Interestingly, the president never disputed that he had written the letter, but instead argued that certain of its details had been altered in the publication. That case continues. In addition, there is little doubt that the opposition has most to fear from these moves, certainly if the rhetoric of current Minister of Information and National Guidance, Kabakumba Matsiko, is to be believed. Matsiko is an example of one of the new generation of NRM firebrands' (about which I have written in previous blogs), who wastes no opportunity to attack the opposition. Matsiko is also one of the driving forces behind the new Press and Journalist (Amendment) Bill (2010), which if passed, will make it more difficult for independent outlets to report opposition views on certain key issues.
Nevertheless, as someone who has been researching Uganda's media environments for over a decade, I still found the narrative of this HRW report too simplistic, and its interpretation of the evidence too narrow. In particular, the idea that the 'expanded number of government regulatory bodies, which have mandates to oversee, control, and monitor the media' (p. 11) have been introduced only for purposes of limiting media freedom - i.e. for the government's own instrumental political purposes - fails to understand just how complex Uganda's media environment has become over the last 10 years.
Since the NRM first introduced their media liberalization reforms, in 1993, Ugandans have gained access to a quite startling array of international, national, and regional media content. For example, in the past 15 years, more than 100 new newspapers have appeared in the country, more than 50 new radio stations, and at least a dozen new TV operations (some of which, such as DsTV or GTV, have themselves each carried a dozen or more channels). Many of these new outlets have not lasted, not because the government has restricted them, but usually because they were simply not commercially viable. However, a number of those outlets that have survived have gone on to have quite powerful social effects.
I havedocumented many of these effects in my published academic work. However, to note just one example here, in the late 1990s, the leadership of a charismatic Christian sect, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, used broadcasts on a Western regional radio station, Radio Voice of Toro FM, to convince people that the world was about to end. Many of the MRTC's members then went on to die in an inferno at Kanungu.
In this context, then, the creation of ever more (and, I would add, ever more complex) regulatory bodies should be seen less, as an attempt by the government to undermine the media, so much an attempt by them to keep up with the increasingly complex realities that their own reforms had created.
A similar point could also be made in relation to this report's main case study: the events surrounding last September's Baganda ethno-nationalist riots in Kampala. Certainly, the behaviour of some police officers, in the context of the riots themselves, was totally unacceptable, with numerous allegations being made of journalists (especially photo-journalists) being attacked by the police in their attempts to cover the story. However, the HRW report also goes on to criticize the government's decision - taken at the height of the rioting - to close down the Baganda Kingdom's own radio station, the Central Broadcasting Service (CBS). This criticism seems misplaced to me. Throughout the first day of the rioting, CBS presenters dedicated large parts of their shows to ringing around various parts of Kampala and its surrounds, to ask members of the public (on their mobile phones), whether any rioting had yet taken place in those areas. These calls had the effect of alerting all listeners to the places in which rioting had not yet begun, following which mobs travelled to those locations to 'stir things up'. The station's modus operandi was similar to that used by certain Kenyan radio station during the post-election violence of 2008. For that matter, it even smacked of the behaviour of Radio Television Libre des Mille Colines (RTLM) during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
In this context, then, it was in fact quite right and proper that the government should have pulled down the station's mast when they did, as parts of central Uganda teetered on the brink of even more serious ethnic violence. Certainly, the government have since made political gain by using this incident as a means to keep CBS off air (the station is currently suing the government over this decision, with the case due to be heard on 8th July). However, this alone does not invalidate the government's initial decision to turn-off the CBS signal when they did. Indeed, the rioting ended within just a few hours of the CBS shut-down (although there were other factors at play here as well).
Thirdly, the HRW goes to great length to argue that the government is today going to great lengths to curtail all media, throughout Uganda. However, looking at the list of cases included in the report's Annex, I am struck by the fact that most of the charges have actually been brought against quite a small network of journalists. Thus, this list of defendants does not represent a broad swathe of opposition media in Uganda, but a small clique within the upper echelons of the Monitor group (some of whom have since gone on to create their own outlets, such as the Independent, and Life FM). Whilst this doesn't justify the charges, of course - indeed, I have no doubt that many of them are false - it might suggest that the government are taking aim here at not, the opposition media as a whole, so much as a specific set of people within those outlets, with some of whom they have historic grievances (and the fact that Andrew Mwenda tops the list here, is no surprise). Thus, there are also a number of other opposition newspapers and radio stations in Uganda which are not represented on this charge sheet.
As I say, the basic tenets of this HRW report are sound. However, a more convincing attempt to sustain it would perhaps focus more on the problems that the New Vision group (which is government owned) have had in recent years. Whilst these did not lead to (significant) criminal charges, they did result in first William Pike, and then Els de Temmerman, resigning (in 2006, and 2008, respectively).
Moreover, a more nuanced report might also make more of the limits of the state in its attempt to control the media. Simply put, Uganda's new media environments have becomes so complex, and so 'globalized' (not least since the advent of the internet), that it is today doubtful that any state body, or bodies, could - at least in any simple sense - 'control' it.

No comments:

Post a Comment