Keep restriction on media freedom within acceptable human rights standards, UHRC tells government

The following are the closing remarks made by Dr Katebalirwe Amooti Wa Irumba, acting chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission at the World Press Freedom Day colloquium hosted by African Centre for Media Excellence on 3 May 2016.

Representatives from Government; Representatives from the Academia; Representatives from Civil Society; Representatives from the Media; Distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentlemen; All Protocol Respectively Observed;

Good Afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a privilege and an honour to be asked to address this gathering of serious minds after such animated discussions on a very critical subject of human rights, which touches every individual.

On behalf of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, I wish to express our gratitude for having been invited to fully participate in these activities to mark the World Press Freedom Day and also officiate as we close.  Needless to say, the Commission recognises the media as one of the key partners in the protection and promotion of human rights in Uganda and this is why we took this opportunity without hesitation, when you invited us. It is our tradition at the Commission to join partners every year to commemorate the World Press Freedom Day. Before I proceed, let me convey apologies from the Chairperson Mr. Med S.K. Kaggwa who could not personally be here because he is out of the country.

Ladies and gentlemen, freedom of speech and expression, media freedom and freedom of information are very important civil and political rights and that is why they are provided for in the constitution of Uganda. They underscore the individual’s capability to enjoy all other rights. Suffice it to say that any undue restriction or abuse of these rights by duty bearers and rights holders alike can have adverse consequences on enjoyment of other rights generally. We must therefore find the proper balance in many ways; be it in enjoying the freedoms, and in this case practising in the media profession; or instituting legal limitations like laws, regulations and policies; or even in our ordinary lives where speech is very much a part of it.

As we have heard during the discussions, the role of the media in promoting good governance cannot be overemphasised.  All aspects of good governance are facilitated by strong, independent and responsible media within a society. Media provide a channel through which information is conveyed for the good of society. They provide the link between the leaders and their constituents; they mirror society holistically with its positives and negatives; they facilitate accountability of the duty bearers to the rights holders as well as fulfillment of responsibilities by the rights holders; they give a voice to the voiceless and vulnerable, among other roles. When the media play these roles effectively, then human rights are protected and promoted.

We must also keep in mind that freedom of the press and other media is a corollary to the freedom of expression of the individual. This connotes the fact that the promotion and protection of media freedom necessarily promotes and protects freedom of speech and expression of individuals and the public. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true that when media freedom is attacked or illegitimately restricted, the general freedom of speech and expression of individuals is negatively impacted.  Therefore, issues of media freedom are not just for the media fraternity alone or human rights defenders; they are issues that should concern all citizens.

Nevertheless, we all need to appreciate that rights go hand in hand with duties and responsibilities. The Constitution of Uganda states categorically that the exercise and enjoyment of rights and freedoms is inseparable from the performance of duties and obligations. Like all other rights and freedoms, media and press freedom comes with duties and responsibilities. Accordingly, legal limitations have been provided for expressly in some instruments that Uganda has ratified and in the Constitution, including those imposed for the respect of the rights and reputations of others; and the protection of national security, public order, public health and public morals. Alongside these, are prohibitions of propaganda for war and advocacy for national, racial, religious hatred; as well as incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence.  Therefore, the fulfilment of duties and responsibilities by the media is equally critical for protection of media freedom in Uganda.

Let me now address myself to the themes of this year’s World Press Freedom Day:

  • Freedom of information as a fundamental freedom and as a human right;
  • Protecting press freedom from censorship and surveillance overreach; and
  • Ensuring safety for journalism online and offline.

I wish to reiterate that access to information is a human right of every citizen and in addition, is vital for media practitioners to effectively play their role. I urge all stakeholders and partners, both in government and outside, to rally behind the quest for access to information and take all possible steps to ensure that the mechanisms that government has put in place to realise this right are made more effective.

As a Commission, we appreciate the good intentions of government in instituting measures like surveillance for the protection of the rights of all people and security in this country. Nevertheless, as we have done before, we continue to urge the government to keep all restrictions on freedom of expression and the media within the acceptable human rights standards. In this respect, they must be legal, necessary, proportional, acceptable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society; and those that enforce the restrictions must be accountable.

Security and safety of journalists is a concern of all of us. We have all come across incidents of harassment, physical and verbal assault, disabling, illegal detention, killing and any other violation of media practitioners at some point or other not just from state agents but also from proprietors and from the public. This is unacceptable and culprits must be brought to book. There are prescribed legal means of punishing errant journalists. We must all commit ourselves to protect the people and the means through which we get informed and educated, and through which we raise our concerns and demand accountability from those that we gave our people power to lead and serve us.

Having said that, I also strongly urge the media practitioners to exercise their rights and do their work responsibly and professionally. There are equally many examples of excesses of some media practitioners that have only served to hurt others, sow confusion and hatred, among other ills. Do some soul searching and see to what extent you have, in your work, contributed to either the promotion or violation of other people’s rights or to jeopardizing peace and development in the country. I challenge you today to make a commitment to change positively.

As I conclude, I am sure we have all benefited in some way from our deliberations today; from the new ideas, the arguments and the many suggestions made. The discussions of today have given us a lot to reflect upon. It will be great if this in any way enhances our individual and collective contribution towards freedom of expression, media freedom and freedom of information in our country.

We need to continue working closely while examining the underlying and structural challenges to press freedom; assessing the capacities of both rights holders and duty bearers, and supporting capacity development measures towards fulfilling these rights. We call for sensitisation and awareness creation campaigns for duty bearers and rights holders to appreciate more their responsibilities in the protection and promotion of human rights. We also call for accountability for the excesses where rights have been violated.

Let us not lose the momentum. We need to follow up the recommendations and take action accordingly and in a timely manner. Let us not return here next year to lament about the things that we had an opportunity to address the whole year. The Uganda Human Rights Commission is ready to partner with any of you to carry this agenda forward.

I take this opportunity to thank all the speakers who shared vital information during this day’s discussions. I also thank the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) and your development partners for tirelessly working to ensure that the activities of this day are successful.

With those few remarks I now have the honour declare this conference on World Press Freedom Day 2016, officially closed.