By Nabusayi L. Wamboka
Government has reopened the Central Broadcasting Service radio station (CBS) amidst sighs of relief and groans of disappointment.
Depending on which side of the coin you stand, the move by the government to eventually get the radio back on air without any conditions but after a series of `closed and open’ door meetings is something that all peace loving Ugandans and lovers of freedom of speech and expression must embrace.
It is never good news if somebody shuts you up as was the case during previous governments. Previously, radio and television were 100 percent government owned and controlled.
It was not until the early 1990, when President Yoweri Museveni liberalized the media industry, that saw a boom in broadcast media. Thanks to this wise decision, the country now has 258 licensed radio stations and 55 television stations. Every district in Uganda now has access to information through public media, especially radio and now telecommunication. This has enabled communities to access information about local, national and international issues most of which are translated in their own languages.
The International Telecommunications Union has described Uganda as one of the fastest communication sectors in Africa due to the expansion of mobile telephony. As per March 2009 there were over 10 million telephone subscribers up from 8.7 million in December 2008. Since 2007, Uganda has opened up the sector to competition with the country’s major mobile providers, including MTN Uganda, Orange Uganda Limited, Zain, Uganda telecom and Warid. According to Internet World Stats, there were over 2,000,000 internet users in Uganda as of March 2008.
Having said that, it is important to point out that President Museveni has been at the forefront of promoting freedom of expression, and has no ill feelings, whatsoever, towards CBS or indeed towards Buganda. He has honoured invitations to FM Radio station including CBS and has also held interviews with most newspapers. He is one individual who has a firm record in terms of promoting media freedoms and freedoms of expression, some repressive legislation notwithstanding.
However, the events that led to the closure of CBS needed to be put in context. Privately, many media professionals and journalists did agree that the station over stepped its mark when it came to ethics and responsibilities. Some of the utterances made can never be repeated on their own radios or newspapers. For some reason, the management of CBS was reluctant to enforce the rules that govern the broadcast industry and also deliberately or otherwise, allowed themselves to be used by people who have their own political agendas to hijack the station for their own use.
None of the people who were encouraging the riots at CBS took to the streets, although they did call as many youthful Baganda to take up whatever they could to defend their `cause’. Death and destruction occurred and the violence left property, worth billions of shillings, damaged including a police station.
While the importance of the media can never been underestimated, we must never forget the fact that the media can also be manipulated. In 1994, according to reports, Rwanda suffered Africa’s worst genocide in modern times. Approximately 800,000 Rwandans were murdered in 100 days, most of whom were ethnic Tutsis and the remainders were seen as moderate Hutus or Tutsi sympathisers. The genocide was triggered by the shooting down of President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane, which Hutu extremists blamed on the Tutsi led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
The media played a crucial role in the genocide as it fueled the killings through hate speech. The state owned newspaper, Kangura and two radio stations mainly Radio Rwanda and Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) repeatedly made broadcasts that convinced Hutus to turn against Tutsis and kill them in their hundreds. Both radio stations were used to incite and mobilise populations, followed by specific directions for carrying out the killings.
Such a situation was nipped in the bud during the 2009 September 11 riots. People were forced out of cars and made to sing the Buganda anthem. It needed a bold decision to stop the broadcasts and calm the situation.
Indeed, following the closure of CBS by the Broadcasting Council, there were a series of meetings from the top, between the President and the Kabaka of Buganda, a cabinet committee was instituted to find a solution to the problems, prominent Baganda who genuinely believed the radio was a great mobilisation tool for the cultural institution, senior civil servants including Amelia Kyambadde the outgoing Principal Private Secretary to the president who spent days and long nights trying to resolve this issue.
During the President’s mobilisation tours, ordinary Baganda from the grassroots begged him to prevail and reopen the station, arguing that the people who caused the ruckus were self seeking politicians who were pursuing personal goals and had no love for the institution of the Kabaka.
The President listened throughout his mobilisation tours in the Central Region which was the direct beneficiary from programmes on CBS. The self seeking politicians cared less whether the radio was on air or not. They didn’t care that people were out of their jobs, they didn’t care that the cultural institution’s development programmes had been severely affected – all they wanted was using the station as their spring board to seek attention for political offices and they did.
Museveni, as a leader, had to take a decision and he did causing the reopening of the station unconditionally. Its closure had already exposed the sly enemies of the cultural institution. The people now know who is their friend and who is the real enemy.
There has been government commitment to liberalization of the media in Uganda, increasing pluralism and diversity of viewpoints and ownership. But it is important that media managers, owners and practitioners realize that, as a fourth estate, we have responsibilities that come with these rights. Re-opening CBS does not put the station above the laws and regulations governing the broadcast media like all the other stations. It is therefore upon the managers of the station to take control of the management of their institution and steer it back on course and uphold standards of professionalism and the quality of journalism.