The irony could not have been lost on anybody when on April 30, the Uganda Communications Commission ordered 11 media houses to suspend 39 journalists, including reporters, producers and news managers, whom it had charged with breach of broadcasting standards.
As it turned out, the offending broadcasts related to news segments concerning the running contest for supremacy between musician turned legislator Robert Kyagulanyi and President Yoweri Museveni.
In more than one way, the UCC’s order, coming as the global community prepared to observe World Press Freedom Day, encapsulates the perils that freedom of expression faces in the modern age, not just in Africa but across the world.
Aptly chosen as the theme for the day was “Media as an instrument of democracy is under relentless attack.”
The latest Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders contains some surprising findings.
The United States, which has arrogated to itself the role of global freedom champion, weighs in at a startling 48 of 180 countries surveyed, with a score of 25.69.
That ranking, worse than South Africa, which is globally ranked 31, can only be comforting news for leaders in East Africa, where the twin liberties of expression and association are increasingly on the defensive.
Besides a normalisation of repression in the eyes of the average man in society, media in East Africa face daily harassment, violence, legal and fiscal constraints, all designed to place governments above citizens’ demand for accountability.
Across the region, media outlets operate under the shadow of arbitrary shutdowns, government advertisement has been weaponised into a tool for punishing contrarian reporting while in some places bloggers are required to pay for the right to express their opinion. Where government advertising is contracted, payments take forever to come through.
Bright spots in Ethiopia, Angola and the Gambia have been eclipsed by developments in places such as Uganda, where a social media sin tax was introduced last year; Tanzania, where bloggers need licences to operate; and Zambia and Zimbabwe, where the crackdown on media continues unabated.
And of course, all this mischief is perfectly legal. In the Ugandan case, the UCC rightly said it was only implementing the law to the letter. But it is a law that is so elastic that it can accommodate the whims of any disaffected government official.
More insidious however, is the creeping normalisation of the absurd. In its latest edition, an Afrobarometer survey of 34 countries in Africa found a “decline in popular demand for freedom,” especially the right to freely associate and a “considerable willingness among citizens to accept government imposition of restrictions on individual freedoms in the name of protecting public security.”
Afrobarometer attributes this trend to the rise of extremist violence and civil disturbance in recent times.
While it is generally agreed that freedom comes at a cost, in the context of recent happening in East Africa, the question is whether the restrictions are proportional to the threat at hand or even justified.
Accepting the emerging status quo is not an option, because it runs contrary to long established societal values.