Over the past one week, I have closely followed the story about the recent media crackdown of one of Uganda's leading independent newspapers TheDaily Monitor , RedPepper a tabloid and a couple of radio stations. I have, on daily basis streamed local news via NTV Uganda , followed the social media buzz and read blogs from some of Uganda Journalist like Charles Onyango Obbo and Angelo Izama regarding the media besiege of 20th May 2013 in Kampala Uganda.
With many personalized African regimes, where you easily get thrown in jail for publishing news that holds the government accountable, there is no doubt that good journalists become an endangered species. Main stream Journalist have become an easily target and have been victims of media crackdowns with so many being thrown in jail and threatened or have their licenses withdrawn by the communications regulator Like Rosebell Kagumire a Journalist and blogger shares.
Because of such risks, the advent of social media has shaped and continues to shape the experience of news because, it not only enables real time reporting but also creates millions of witnesses to hold Governments accountable. We all witnessed its impact during the Arab spring and how the narrative about Kenya is Changing though an online movement on Twitter dubbed #KOT [Kenyans on twitter] who will not waste any chance to correct international media like CNN for wrongly broadcasting news about the various situations in Kenya. All these have been very successful but the same approach has failed to yield anything tangible in Uganda yet a reasonable number of Ugandan use social media.
The obvious reasons will be attributed to issues of numbers; how many people use social media in Uganda,what social media platforms are used, if any, what they are used for, if there are rules governing usage? Etc. While I personally agree that big numbers are essential for advocacy, they do not always guarantee positive impact. But for those who use social media (which is quite a reasonable number) how is their online activism and advocacy shaping and or impacting on the media freedom debate in Uganda?
This is why I think social media is/has not been helpful in Uganda
- For many of us, action has become what we think. We have chosen to use social media as platforms to express our grievances and only stop at that, and then leave it for few ‘brave’ ones to act. And unfortunately, only few brave people have acted. This is why I think that, social media has not been an effective tool in advocating for positive social change or creating positive impact in instances where the government has silenced citizens who question its mandate, those who express their opinion freely and those who threaten its existence in one way or another through freedom of expression.
- We advocate for connectivity without pushing for freedom yet at the back of our minds, we know that this cannot work. In many places worldwide, ordinary people have been tortured and continue to be toured because of censorship. Without freedom, many Ugandans are hesitant to participate in sensitive issues that jeopardize their existence, so they choose to follow the “bandwagon” effect and share information randomly without good coordination such that at the end of it all, no one is responsible for the online buzz and therefore one is to blame or held accountable because somehow everyone is responsible.
- When you look at a list of Ugandans on twitter you will notice that these are elite and mainly urban dwellers that have jobs to protect and fear to get on the wrong side of government. You will hardly find members of parliament, the police, ministers and other legislators with personal accounts that they manage and use to engage. For online campaigns to be successful in real life, there must be a leader, someone to guide the discussion and move it forward, someone to keep the interest strong right from the start to the end, to keep the online communities of practice focused and not easily swayed away by other "breaking news" a common trend on social media platform and above all someone ready to take up the biggest part of responsibility and willing to be accountable. We do not have many of such people in Uganda when it comes to sensitive issues that that are linked to or involve the government.
- The communication regulator, Uganda communication Commission (UCC) claims to recognize the fundamental importance of ICTs in all policies for development and says that it creates the conditions for the fullest participation by all sections of the population, yet the same regulator is quick to shut down radio stations and threaten to block social media websites when citizens use the internet to question issues of governance like it currently is with freedom of expression. In 2011, UCC, through Internet service providers attempted to block social media websites twitter and face book during the presidential elections and Walk to work riots. Major telecoms in Uganda were also accused of violating customer privacy because they were censoring SMS messages with key words like Egypt, Mubarak during the Arab spring. These actions by the country's communications regulator raise suspicion among online internet users making them worry about their privacy thereby hindering online activism that could later on become physical activism.
Aljazeera's Malcom Webb (R) runs away from a teargas Canister during the journalist demo in Kampala, Uganda on 28/5/13: Photo by Isaac KisamaniLike Chris Obore an investigative Journalist with the Daily Monitor recently said during the 2013 Internet freedom Forum in Sweden , that "Until internet begins to determine politics in my Government, it will still remain useless for so many”. It is true that very little advantage can be taken of the opportunities social media provides if the policies needed to provide citizens with meaning and purpose are not conducive. And because we still have a small online community in Uganda, the newspapers and radio stations are effective ways of accessing relevant and timely information by the populace. We need our journalists to be protected because they are society watch dogs. Threatening them and beating them affects us all. We need to be informed so that we can question and hold our government accountable because we are all stakeholders. Journalists surely deserve better.