World Press Freedom Day: Crashing the journalists’ party

2013-05-03 11.54.06

“Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose”

– George Orwell

“What are the chances the UN ambassador and all those journalists are slow walkers?” I ask my companion Mark.

We forlornly look at Constitutional Square. We’re supposed to be joining a procession around the streets of Kampala to show support for freedom of the press. Only we’re 20 minutes late due to the heavy down pouring of rain. Even as we stand debating whether to go and look for the procession we’re being whipped by rain drops and splashed by passing cars. Squinting down at my rain-drenched body I decide we’ll go for a coffee and catch up with the procession at the hotel for the talks.

On Friday the 3rd of May it was World Press Freedom Day. This year’s topic was “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media”. The Uganda Media Development Foundation in association with the U.S. Embassy in Kampala hosted a conference in celebration and support of this day. My friend Mark and I totally crashed this event. Well, maybe we did. I’m not sure if it was open to the public. Someone has to report on what the journalists are up to though. I registered under the name of this blog.

The conference was super interesting! All kinds of experts came and gave talks including (but not limited to) Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala (co-ordinator of Human Rights Network for Journalists), Daniel Travis (Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy), Rosemary Kemigisha (Uganda Human Rights Commission), Andrea Quijada (Media Literacy Project, U.S.), and Gwada Ogwot (Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy). This is just a handful of examples. There were many more speakers, all really interesting.

A lot of the talks and audience comments seemed to focus on the problem of journalists self-censoring and being attacked by police or others. They also discussed the difficulty of journalists remaining unbiased and reporting freely when they are paid so little in Uganda. This is one of the things I found most shocking. Apparently the average Ugandan journalist earns just 90,000 shillings a month (25 pounds). They can earn from 500-1000 shillings per story. To put that in context a Boda Boda driver earns about 3000 shillings for a 15 minute ride. Is it any wonder that Ugandan journalists on average stay in journalism for only 2-3 years?

Photo courtesy of the U.S Embassy Kampala –

The U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Officer Daniel Travis made a nice analogy. He argued that the media of a country is like a canary in a mine. When the canary/media is silenced you know you’re in trouble. He also quote President Obama from last year’s Press Freedom Day:

“No matter the cause, when journalists are intimidated, attacked, imprisoned, or disappeared, individuals begin to self-censor, fear replaces truth, and all of our societies suffer. A culture of impunity for such actions must not be allowed to persist in any country.”

Everyone at the conference was agreed that press freedom was essential.

One other thing that particularly worried me was something Rosemary Kemigisha from the Uganda Human Rights Commission mentioned. She said towards the end of her talk that in Ugandan law during a “state emergency” Human Rights can be taken away if there is a “genuine threat to the life of the nation”. Unfortunately she ran out of time before she could elaborate on what would constitute a threat to the life of the nation. I find this deeply worrying and vague though. It seems almost anything could be taken as a threat to the nation if phrased in the right way. Human Rights should hold firm, at all times.

All in all it was a great day and I came away with many more things to think about. The food was also great. Man, Ugandan journalists can eat!

Freedom of the press is essential.