The Situation of human rights defenders in Uganda: Challenges and Opportunities for Journalists
Ms. Margaret Sekaggya
Human Rights Centre-Uganda
Can journalists be human rights defenders? The answer to that question is yes. So what is a Human Rights Defender whose profession is in journalism?Human Rights Defenders are individuals who make it their job to investigate, expose and publicize ongoing human rights issues, and this is what many journalists in Uganda have been doing.
It is important to note that there are legal provisions which protect journalists as human rights defenders. Under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is stated that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Under Article 6 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, everyone has the right to know, seek, obtain, receive and hold information about all human rights and fundamental freedoms. The right to freedom of expression and the media is also contained in Article 29(1) (a) of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995.
Under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to freedom of opinion and expression allows for the right to hold opinions without interference, the right to seek and receive information and the right to impart information and ideas of all kinds– either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of one’s choice.
The right to freedom of opinion and expression imposes legal obligations upon Governments such as respecting rights and refraining from interfering with those rights. Governments are also obliged to protect that right or to exercise due diligence in order to prevent, punish, investigate and provide redress for harm caused by private persons or entities. And governments are also supposed to take the necessary measures to ensure the full realization of these rights.
The role of journalists in human rights
Journalists can play an important role in promoting and protecting rights, through their right to freedom of opinion and expression. This has been done by combating violations such as impunity and corruption, among other violations. In Uganda journalists have reported on numerous violations such as police brutality, graft, poor quality of social services, poor welfare of civil servants, discrimination, environmental degradation, and exploitation among other things. This has compelled the authorities to take the necessary steps to address the aforementioned by prosecuting protagonists. Journalists’ role of informing citizens about public officials can enable the latter to participate in political affairs by allowing them to take decisions; exercise their political right to elect and be elected; challenge or influence public policies; monitor the quality of public spending; and promote accountability. All of this, in turn, makes it possible to establish controls to prevent the abuse of power.
Journalists’ work is unique because they can take advantage of their work to advocate for empowering people and this empowerment is a multi-dimensional social and political process which can help people gain control over their own lives. This can only be achieved through access to accurate, fair and unbiased information, representing a plurality of opinions, and the means to actively communicate vertically and horizontally, thereby participating in the active life of the community.
For journalists’ rights to be realized it is important that they Therefore journalists must stand together and agitate for a political environment which tolerates freedom of expression and the right to work. For this to happen there has to be political will to support and protect the aforementioned rights. In the same spirit, journalists will have to adhere to the highest ethical and professional standards if freedom of expression is to be realized.
Despite the existing legal frameworks which are supposed to promote and protect the rights of journalists, they have experienced many challenges in Uganda and other parts of the world, such as closure of media houses such as the Daily Monitor and Red Pepper;assaults for carrying out their work, legislations passed restricting their freedoms.
The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has reported that journalists and media workers have been targeted because of their reports on human rights violations or because they have been witness to human rights violations. Many journalists have exposed violations in armed conflicts, post-conflict situations and situations of unrest in connection with a coup d’état or contested elections. In many countries, legal frameworks are used to restrict journalists’ and media workers’ activities. These restrictions have the potential to promote impunity, intimidation, stigmatization, violence and self-censorship. In Uganda this has been manifested by police and district internal security officials among others silencing the media or calling journalists and warning them about consequences of reporting on a particular story.
According to the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, journalists’ work has been compromised in a number of countries under legislation relating to national security and under the criminal code; this has also affected social media and other communications tools, which has affected the activities of defenders.These legislation criminalize the publication of articles or photos that could harm national security, public order,public health or public interest, incite violence, constitute sedition or have negative consequences for the financial climate of the country all overly broad and restrictive. Not only do such provisions limit the ability of journalists to express their opinion about human rights issues, they also make it difficult for them to know what is acceptable under the law and hence lead to self censorship.
Another challenge of defenders, as reported by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, journalists have been charged and convicted because they have disseminated information deemed to be officially secret or taken positions in public in response to such information. This has also happened in States in which legislation permitting access to information is in place—keep in mind Uganda has the Access to Information Act which allows the public to access information from the government.
Defamation charges against journalists have been brought to the attention of the Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and on the situation of human rights defenders,because they have published articles, blog entries or tweets or expressed opinions in public. It is important to bear in mind that defamation legislation is to protect an individual’s reputation from false and malicious attacks, but the problem occurs when the powers that be use the legislation to halt criticisms or allegations.Journalists have been ordered to pay fines that are largely disproportionate to the offense committed.
According to the Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression’s report, journalists or defenders who provide information have become targets for threats, kidnapping, assaults and even assassinations. Globally, there has been an increase in the number of killings, assassinations, assaults and incidents of ill-treatment against persons associated with journalism and mass communication worldwide. Many of the victims have been killed, with impunity, because of their investigations into corruption, organized crime and political crime.
Despite all these challenges, the future is not that bleak for journalists or human rights defenders. Many have found other avenues to protect themselves and promote and protect other people’s rights. It is worth noting that it was Ugandan journalists who went to the Constitutional Court to fight against the law of sedition from the Penal Code that allowed the State to charge people with the offense of sedition if a person utters or publishes statements aimed at bringing hatred, contempt, or disaffection against the President, Government, or the Judiciary. The Constitutional Court stuck out the law of sedition declaring it unconstitutional and as it infringes on freedom of speech and expression. The media fraternity argued that it was an infringement on the right to freedom of expression. Many a time, journalists in Uganda have used courts to seek justice and in enforcement of their rights without which they would not have been able to check the authorities.
It is encouraging to see that the members of the media fraternity show solidarity for each other. There are two examples that come to mind. During media siege of the Daily Monitor and Red Pepper, the media fraternity collectively protested against the closures by Government security agencies. Another example was when the media organizations around the world took part in a day of protest against the detention of Al-Jazeera staff in Egypt. There were protests in London, Cairo, Beirut, and Berlin. The detention of the journalists was also highlighted on social media such as Twitter via the hashtag #FreeAJStaff.
Social media is an opportunity which journalists or any other defender can take advantage of. Social media can monitor emerging human rights issues which can be manifested in filming cases of human rights violation. By filming a violation, defenders may secure evidence which can be used in court or used as tool for advocacy. Defenders should bear in mind that social media will not be a panacea to human rights violations because this can be determined by factors such as access to technology and the level of state intrusion in people’s lives.
The right to freedom of opinion and expression should be viewed as a key instrument for the promotion and protection of other human rights and an important tool in the effort to combat impunity, corruption and any other violation.
Governments have an obligation to ensure journalists or anyone engaged in journalistic activities enjoy this right. Governments should desist from criminalizing any work in relation to freedom of expression as means of imposing censorship. Governments should also ensure that they put in place legislation permitting access to information and is fully compliant with international standards.