Media Council has no mandate to register, accredit journalists – Court

The High Court in Kampala has quashed the directive seeking to have all journalists registered and accredited by the Media Council of Uganda, for purposes of covering elections and other state events.  The court also issued a permanent injunction against the Media Council’s attempt to register journalists in the absence of a fully functioning National Institute of Journalists (NIJU).

The council issued a directive on December 10, 2020, requiring all journalists to register within seven days, for accreditation. Subsequently, the Uganda police issued a notice indicating that the police and sister security agencies would recognize only those persons on the Media Council register during the coverage of political campaigns and other electoral events.

 Paul Ekochu, the Council chairperson stated thereafter that criminal charges would be slapped on any media house, both local and international, including freelance journalists who failed to register. In the aftermath of the pronouncements, the Editors Guild Uganda, an association that brings together editors, senior journalists and Scholars of Journalism opted to challenge the matter in court.

The Editors’ Guild, together with the Centre for Public Interest Law Limited (CEPIL), sought an order quashing the registration and accreditation process for being illegal and irregular, for lack of a fully constituted Media Council and lack of quorum. The two bodies also sought an order to restrain the Media Council of Uganda and any other regulatory agents of government and security organs from illegally and irrationally curtailing media and press freedom.

They argued that the registration of journalists by the Media Council of Uganda, without an operational National Institute of Journalists of Uganda to enroll journalists under the Press and Journalist Act was illegal. According to the act, the Media council is only supposed to issue practicing certificates to journalists who have presented certificates of enrolment issued by the National Institute of Journalists of Uganda (NIJU) and paid the prescribed fees.

Daniel Kalinaki, the interim chairperson of the Editors Guild stated that the directives by the Uganda Media Council are ill-intended with the effect of suppressing and illegally curtailing media and press freedom and independence, as well as constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of expression, access to information and the practice of journalism as a profession.

“The impugned directive will have the effect of fueling the brutality of the security agencies and malicious prosecution against Journalists in the guise of enforcing and implementing the impugned directive, further curtailing and unreasonably restricting constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and rights”, Kalinaki said in an affidavit.

Additionally, the supportive affidavit by the CEPIL acting executive director, Francis Alfonse Obonyo shows that the Press and Journalist Act gives the mandate to enrol journalists to the membership of theNIJU and to issue a certificate of enrollment before they are registered by the media council.

But his evidence indicated that the Institute is also defunct, unconstitutional and non-operational. Without this, Obonyo argues that it’s impossible to register Journalists and any attempt at it would constitute illegality. The council is supposed to have two representatives from the NIJU.

In a judgement delivered today, Justice Esta Nambayo quashed the directive by the Uganda Media Council and stated that the compulsory accreditation of journalists has been held at both national and international levels to be a hindrance to effective enjoyment to the right to freedom of expression.

The Judge acknowledges that government’s failure to operationalize the National Institute of Journalists of Uganda established under the Press and Journalists of Uganda to enrol journalists with the Press and Journalists Act is illegal. She also directed the government to pay the costs of the suit to the applicants.

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