A few weeks ago, I embarked on a monthlong media exchange program in the United States. My placement at The Durango Herald has been awesome, thanks to the International Centre for Journalism together with the U.S. Department of State. As part of my goal of learning how the U.S. media operates, I have this opportunity to share with Durangoans the status of the media in my country Uganda, in East Africa.
Perhaps in countries I have traveled to outside Africa, the only thing people know about Uganda is of past President Idi Amin Dada and his dictatorial rule. The young and old still have this feeling that Idi Amin still exists, even though he died in 2003 and was buried in Saudi Arabia where he lived after his regime fell in 1979.
His authoritarian rule not only crippled the countrys economy, but there was nearly no freedom of speech. Because of this, many journalists fled the country. This continued through the mid-1980s as the country suffered civil unrest.
All that is long gone; the gospel truth is that Uganda is way past the Idi Amin era! In 1986, change of power was brought about by the current President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni after a guerilla war. Since then, there have been many reforms and the media was among the benefactors.
The media in Uganda today are vivacious. In the last 27 years, there has been significant growth in the industry and a lot of improvement has been made in terms of freedom of expression. Currently, the media in Uganda is one of the most active and prosperous sectors of the economy.
Uganda today boasts more than 10 newspapers, including the Daily Monitor, Ugandas leading independent newspaper, and New Vision, the countrys oldest newspaper.
In terms of circulation, the two papers (both published in English, the official language) dominate the print sector, and this has been so in the last decade. Other English-language newspapers include the Weekly Observer, the East African Business Week, Procurement News Magazine, the East African Newspaper (regional), Red Pepper and the Sun (tabloids).
Other newspapers include Bukedde, Ddoozi and Kamunye, published in Luganda, Orumuri, Rupiny, Etop, in other local languages, and the English-language weekly Sunrise Newspaper. Magazines include the Independent News Magazine and African Woman, both in English.
In the late 1990s, Uganda depended on one state-owned television station, Uganda Television, which was later rebranded as Uganda Broadcasting Corporation.
After the market was liberalized, the country witnessed the first privately owned television station, Sanyu TV.
Others that joined the market were WBS TV, Lighthouse TV (a religious station), NTV Uganda (a sister company with the Daily Monitor), NBS TV, Record TV, Channel 44, Top TV, Bukedde TV, and Star TV (Sister to UBC).
Radio was dominated by the state-owned Radio Uganda until early 1993, when the first independent radio stations got licenses to operate. Sanyu FM and Capital FM were the first and oldest FM radio stations in Uganda. Today, there are more than 100 FM radio stations, most of which also have Internet versions.
The Internet has become vibrant, especially in the urban areas. Internet penetration levels are still low when compared to other African countries, although the recent Indian Ocean fiber-optic cable project led to an increased interest in the Internet as a media platform. Because of this, a number of local telecommunication companies have invested in broadband and cellular-based subscription services. This has led to a surge in levels of Internet penetration with almost anyone able to connect using simple flash drives or even by mobile phones.
The social media Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs have also been adopted by the young generation, the elite and corporate fraternity as means of communication.
To keep up with that trend, local newspapers also produce online versions.
However, as in other countries, challenges cannot be avoided. The 2012-2013 Press Freedom Index annually ranked countries reflecting the degree of freedom that journalists, news organizations and magazines enjoy and the efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom. It reported Uganda as in an average position with noticeable problems.
There have been signs of increased harassment, intimidation and violence on the part of police and the security forces against journalists. This was exhibited in 2011, an election year. The countrys economy slid because of high inflation, which hit 30.4 percent up from 6 percent in less than a year. This saw demonstrations led by the opposition and human-rights activists demanding change.
There were walk-to-work demonstrations against rising food and fuel prices. And while the police were suppressing the demonstrators, the media were also targeted.
The countrys Constitution provides for freedom of expression and press freedom. However, several laws claw back these guarantees, and the government continued to crack down on journalists and media using both subtle and blatant methods.
While the law on sedition, which had often been invoked to charge critical journalists, was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in August 2010, the government continued to use other provisions of the penal code, including those on criminal libel and treason, against journalists.
There had been fear that the Press and Journalist Amendment Bill, proposed in 2010, would enable the government to manipulate the licensing and registration of media and introduce new publication offenses, but the amendments had not been before parliament as of the end of 2011.
In April 2011, after a delay of nearly six years, the government finally published regulations to make operational the 2005 Access to Information Act. Uganda is among a handful of African countries with a freedom of information law, however, without the regulations in place, the act had existed only on paper. Even after the release of the regulations, many government departments still deny requests for information.
Authorities have continued to interfere in private radio broadcasting, temporarily shutting down some stations in recent years. There were reports that four radio stations that had been closed down in September 2009 on accusations of promoting sectarianism and inciting violence continued to engage in self-censorship to avoid renewed conflict with the authorities.
Despite the increased level of media freedom in Uganda over the last decade, there are still calls for more action from government by journalists and media houses to let the media express themselves freely. Even with these obstacles, the independent media remains pulsating.
Dorothy Nakaweesi is a journalist with the Daily Monitor in Kampala, Uganda. Her visit to the United States includes a three-week stay in Durango.