Saturday, May 3rd is Press Freedom Day. It maybe just another day were it not for the fact that freedom of the press touches on every sphere of our lives and – not to over exaggerate, makes the difference between us living lives of increasing affluence or wallowing in quiet desperation and poverty.
I will start by quickly admitting my bias on the subject.
My ability to do my work to the best of my ability is determined by the degree of press freedom in this country. The more the better.
But the importance of press freedom goes well beyond my improved wellbeing or that of any individual journalist or media house, press freedom is critical for the advancement of democracy in Uganda.
And why should we care about democracy or an increasingly inclusive political system? Because politics determines whether we will enjoy ever improving standards of living or not.
The difference between the general well being of a Ugandan and South Sudanese or Kenyan or Rwandan is a function of the politic practice in the respective countries.
It is attractive to believe that if you have good leadership then the politics will follow suit.
But good politics, democracy comes from a constant interaction between the elite and the citizens where the interaction goes beyond elections every so often but also an ability for the citizens to question government policies, demand accountability and even have a realistic chance of proposing alternative policy.
Leaders good or bad, practice good politics, that is beneficial to the majority of people, only to the extent that they are held accountable for their actions by the people.
The main power centers in a political system are the government and business. But often times these two are in cahoots, conspiring against the ordinary person. Civil society then becomes a necessary third center of influence to check governments and business.
Enter the media.
At the basic level access to information is a tool for survival. In prehistoric times it might have been information about which plant to eat or not, which places to go or not or when to plant or not. In more recent times information that will further our chances of survival can be about job and investment opportunities, new findings in health research or even where to find a mate.
With all these benefits the importance of the media seems moot point.
But it is as a result of these numerous benefits that the attacks on media freedoms are persistent and unrelenting around the world and not necessarily from the powers that be.
Just because in Uganda we are not jailing or killing journalists or shutting down media houses at the rate that its happening in other countries does not mean media freedoms are not under attack. The attacks on the media may take the form of intimidation, commercial boycotts or anything that prevents the media house or its journalists from doing their job.
Whereas when we talk of press freedom the knee jerk reaction is to examine government’s record on this front, the general public are also guilty of compromising press freedoms.
Last year when two media houses were shut down, some activists called for a boycott of the New Vision, which is 53% owned by government. These “defenders” of press freedom had their reasons for this call all muddled up but it boiled down to since government had shut down these other newspapers, their media house should also suffer. This playground logic would be all very well if not for the fact that it would still be curtailing press freedoms and would not necessarily resolve the issue of reopening the other media houses.
Unfortunately for the media they deal in an intangible service, whose benefits while they lead to a better standard of living are easy to underestimate.
Fear is a function of a lack of knowledge. To dispel fear you need to reduce your ignorance. To the extent that the media is free to go about its business is the extent to which people feel safer going to bed at night.
Of course the argument can be that the media can be used to inflame passions and fuel paranoia but if you look down history, the times when media have been able to do that is when they has been no press freedom. Where the information coming to the public is controlled and alternative views have been quashed.
Many perspectives even on the same story are useful in helping the public not only keep abreast of developments but also make informed decisions on what actions to take in given circumstances.
While the professionals who work in the industry are the direct beneficiaries of an improved media environment, it’s the everyday citizen who is the ultimate beneficiary of a free and fair press.
The US has had the debate on media freedoms for much longer than many in 1961 John F Kennedy while addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association probably took the debate a notch higher when he said,
“Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive. [...] And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply "give the public what it wants" — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”