On March 12, Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Hon Jacob Oulanyah repudiated an earlier letter by the Clerk of Parliament demanding for the withdrawal of senior reporters from parliament. In a parliamentary sitting, the Deputy Speaker declared that ‘no decision was reached to stop senior reporters from covering parliament[ary] proceedings. This letter should be treated as a letter but its command should be treated as no command. Its effect should be treated as no effect.’
While admitting that the Parliamentary Commission had discussed matters relating to bad press in August 2014, the Deputy Speaker noted that the letter by the Clerk to Parliament if based on the decision in the said meeting would be an ‘overly wide interpretation of what was said by the Parliamentary Commission.’
The letter by the Clerk to Parliament, which was addressed to Editors of various media houses, had been received with protestations from the Uganda Parliamentary Reporters Association (UPPA) and a section of Members of Parliament (MP) – who condemned it as an affront to the independence of the media. The reporters threatened a media blackout of parliament and lashed at the Leader of Opposition – himself a former journalist and media owner – for reportedly backing the actions of the Clerk to Parliament.
The actions of the Deputy Speaker restored calm- an easy calm though given the frosty relationship between parliament and UPPA. In March 2012, MPs voted to block the media from accessing the House during plenary sessions with video and still cameras, as well as electronic recorders. The MPs rejected the Hon Fox Odoi led Parliamentary Committee on Rules, Privileges and Discipline proposal to create a media chamber in the gallery and permit the use of electronic devices.
After threats of boycott by the press under their umbrella association, UPPA, the MPs catapulted, recommitted the proposal for debate and passed it overwhelmingly, permitting the creation of a press chamber and use of electronic devices for live reporting.
In January of 2013, the Speaker of Parliament, a darling of the press for her sound bites, expelled Tash Lumu and Sulaiman Kakaire, parliamentary reporters from the Observer Newspaper for filing ‘inaccurate articles that were damaging to the officer and person of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker.’ This matter ended up in court and is pending a decision.
Following the Speakers’ expulsion of the two journalists, the Public Relations Office of Parliament issued guidelines for journalists in February 2013 outlining inter alia manner of dressing. This too was roundly rejected by UPPA and has remained unimplemented.
These events reveal a simmering tension between the media and the legislature. The media accuse MPs of intolerance especially for critical reporting. The MPs on the other hand accuse the media of bias and sexual relations with their parliamentary sources.
The veracity of the accusations is hard to determine given the recklessly with which they are uttered, seemingly in the heat of the moment and laced with emotions. But one or two things are clear.
First, an easy relationship between parliamentary reporters and parliament suppresses information, deprives the public of access to information they are entitled to receive about key decisions being made by their representatives in parliament. Parliament derives its mandate from the people. That is how a parliamentary democracy functions. MPs are delegates of the people – they exercise delegated functions. The people are entitled to know what their representatives are doing on their behalf and in their names. The media provides the bridge people the people and their representatives by reporting on a daily basis about parliamentary work.
A parliament too concerned about ‘bad press’ raises suspicion about what it is they do not want the public to know about its internal operations. Countering ‘bad press’ with truth (or good press) through the parliamentary Public Relations department would have been a better idea than seeking to expel senior journalists.
Seeking to pick and choose for media houses reporters who should report from parliament, as the Clerk to Parliament letter sought to do, raises the question of the independence of the parliamentary press and the wider media in general. It begs the question whether parliament appreciates media freedoms and the role of an independent and critical media in democracy.
Secondly, the media must cease this opportunity for an honest introspection; for a re-examination of their level of professionalism in reporting from parliament. Media freedom and independence serves a public and professional good for media practitioners. If this function is questioned, a commitment to reevaluate other than seek shelter and play victim would appeal more to a media committed to the service of public good.
Both parliamentary press and parliament need to pause for a moment and reflect of the wider public good that they both serve. Parliament must recommit to safeguarding the law it has passed to provide for media freedoms and resort only with restraint to administrative sanctions in their attempt to regulate its relationship with the press. The parliamentary press on the other hand must ask of its members the hard but honest question whether adherence to ethical standard is the norm other than the exception in their work.
Digging in each other heels in their respective corner will only be a disservice to the public and to our nescient parliamentary democracy.