Free press and independent media nourishes democracy

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Free press and independent media nourishes democracy
Robert Kigongo

Journalists can celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom and sadly pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

By Robert Kigongo

A critical, independent and investigative press is the life blood of any democracy, said Nelson Mandela.

Fortunately, based on some of my articles in the media like Nile Post, The Observer, Daily Monitor, New Vision and policy dialogues, I can state "Uganda, the Pearl of Africa - except for the election period, has registered great success towards press freedom and independent media".

Holistically, there are many public debates shaping national issues politics, governance, taxation, and healthcare and gender disparities, climate change and sustainable development.

In regards to climate change and environmental restoration Next Media has gone an extra mile 'Taasa Obutonde’ every day as an effort towards climate information dispensation.

Soccer matches have been played to spur social cohesion and harmony between journalists and security forces.

In 2022 and 2023, Office of the High Commissioner for United Nations Human Rights in partnership with government of Uganda honoured the outstanding journalists, including New Vision’s Gerald Tenywa who reports on climate change, Ali Mivule a news anchor at Nation Media Group, Mildred Tuhaise of Next Media with an objective to encourage and inspire them to remain committed.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in most parts of the world as we join the United Nations to commemorate of the World Press Freedom Day.

In West Africa, the totalitarian government of Burkina Faso suspended BBC in the country while in the Hamas-Israel conflict war a journalist and son of Al Jazeera owner Wael al-Dahdouh was killed by an Israeli airstrike.

The World Press Freedom is an opportunity to remind governments all over the world to respect press freedoms.

Subsequently, to journalists, it’s an opportunity to reflect on their professional values and ethics amidst the catastrophic rise of citizen journalism seasoned with misinformation and disinformation.

The Press Freedom Day 2024 comes a time when everyone with a smart phone can go on social media apps and become a news junkie, leading to unnecessary competition with professional journalists charged with a duty of dispensing credible information and contemporary breaking news.

Regardless of the rise in citizen journalism, the professional journalists are reminded by UNESCO to defend the media from attacks, on their their independence and to assess the state of press freedom throughout the world.

Journalists can celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom and sadly pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

In 2023, there was an attempt by army to take away government business from private media houses. Even though the plan was halted, it was a direct attack on fair sharing of the national resources, an ingredient that nourishes democracy.

The role of press freedom in advancing democracy is undisputed. The media and journalists are at the forefront of advancing and implementing the principles of democracy.

Sadly, media houses and journalists continue to face digital repression, online surveillance, cyber stalking from security agencies and state, heavy tax burdens and penalties, threats of certificate termination, political compromise, brutality marred upon journalists.

In 2023, the coverage of intern doctors demanding for a fair pay saw many journalists attacked by the state agents.

Media practitioners have suffered with tear gas in the hands of security agencies; For instance Jimmy Akena of Reuters and Irene Abalo of National Media Group.

To-date, Ms Abalo remains maimed from injuries inflicted on her limbs while covering a political engagement by security organs that a charged with a duty to protect citizens.

Many journalists who have gone to courts of law have not received justice, yet we all know justice delayed is justice denied.

Journalists even after sustaining injuries while on duty hardly receive sufficient medical treatment and bill.

Consequentially, ill behaviour by media owners and perpetuators has discouraged journalists from covering democratic exercises.

For Uganda to avoid future calamities similar to West African countries and Sudan, the NRM government and its security organs as well as the Judiciary must learn to embrace democratic principles by guarantying an independent and critical press.

Free press is widely regarded as a cornerstone of democratic societies. A robust and independent media plays a vital role in upholding democratic principles and ensuring transparency, accountability, and the protection of citizens' rights.

A free press serves as a watchdog, holding those in power accountable and exposing corruption or wrongdoing.

It provides citizens with access to diverse and reliable information, enabling them to make informed decisions and participate actively in democratic processes.

Furthermore, a free press fosters public debate, encourages the exchange of ideas, and safeguards freedom of expression.

By providing a platform for different perspectives and challenging the status quo, a free press contributes to the vitality and resilience of democratic societies.

Overall, a free press is essential for the functioning of democracy, as it empowers citizens, promotes transparency, and helps maintain a healthy balance of power.

Press freedom recommendations

"We must make every effort to ensure that journalists are protected from bleaches of privacy, in order to safeguard their work, which is crucial to create public awareness and ensure accountability," Cristian Espoinosa Canizare, chair of the UN Committee on Information.

“Together we can help to ensure that those who dedicate their lives to informing and educating us and do better jobs, safely and without repercussion,” Merissa Flemings –Undersecretary General for Global Communication.

"By protecting journalists, we protect our freedoms, we protect our societies, and we protect ourselves most importantly," Abdulla Shahid during the 76thUnited Nations General assembly.

Remarkably, the UN Secretary General said without freedom of press, there are no real democracies, without freedom of press there is no freedom.

My clarion call to the government and partners on World Press Freedom Day and onwards is to endeavour to respect press freedom.

Uganda government should allow Uganda Journalists Association (UJA) to conduct fresh elections in order to have a democratically elected leadership.

To all journalists and media professionals, avoid biased reporting of information but credible information.

The vision of Nelson Mandela will come to life when journalists spearhead the efforts in democratisation of Africa.

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Mr Robert Kigongo is a press freedom rights activist

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