Parliament bars reporting by journalists with no degree

A debate has been raging in Uganda over whether a degree improves the ability to comprehend and accurately report on parliamentary proceedings. With elections looming, parliament has barred journalists who do not have a degree and three years’ experience – even though MPs only need an advanced certificate.

Also, the degree any reporter covering parliament holds must be in journalism, communication or related fields, according to a letter signed this month and sent to all media houses by parliament’s Deputy Clerk Okello G Obabaru.

Journalists who do not meet these criteria cannot access the press office in parliament anymore and will not be allowed to cover the 10th Uganda parliament starting in May 2016.

Outcry over barring

“I find it ridiculous and inconsistent to require that those reporting should be more educated than those they are reporting about,” said Ivan Lukanda, a media trainer and lecturer in the department of journalism and communication at Makerere University in the capital Kampala.

Robert Ssempala, national coordinator of the Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda, or HRNJ-Uganda, complained: “Since when has parliament been in a position to determine who watches over them? We have gone to the courts of law and we shall win.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement on 15 January it was concerned that Ugandan journalists were being prevented from freely covering parliament and campaigns for presidential elections due on 18 February.

“The entire democratic process is undermined if journalists are restricted whether through arbitrary regulations or physical violence from covering politicians,” said Sue Valentine, the committee’s Africa programme coordinator.

The letter from Obabaru stated that the degree requirement would facilitate complete, fair, accurate and balanced coverage of parliamentary committee and plenary sessions. It requested all editors to submit names of qualified reporters and supporting documents for accreditation by last Tuesday, and said parliament reserved the right to grant or withdraw accreditation.

But critics argue that parliament only has a right to demand qualifications from its employees or government-owned news organisations, not private companies.

Parliament should not require minimum qualifications from people who do not even work for it, said Haruna Kanabi, coordinator of the East African Media Institute. It is the aspiration of Uganda that everyone should be educated to the highest level, he added. But for parliament to use a degree as a restriction on the right of access to information was not backed by law.

Rights violated

“The right to choose which reporter has competence to cover what institution should be left to media houses,” said Gerald Walulya, an assistant lecturer in the department of journalism and communication at Makerere University.

Walulya, who covered parliament for many years before becoming an academic, said that in most cases media houses were sending their best reporters to parliament – yet they were not necessarily degree holders.

HRNJ-Uganda’s Ssempala said: “This violates constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of the press and affects the professional development of parliamentary reporters.” It also disenfranchised many media houses and violated the right of journalists who are not degree holders to practise their profession as enshrined in Article 40(2) of the Constitution.

Radio stations will be most affected by the move – and they reach a large public listenership. The Uganda Communications Commission has licensed 270 radio stations and each one has a right to send a reporter to parliament – yet most do not have the money to employ degree holders.

Some journalists support the move

Charles Kazooba, who has been covering parliament since 2005 and is a member of the Uganda Parliamentary Press Association, supports the move. He is currently an undergraduate law student at Kampala International University.

“I would like the requirement to even be raised to a masters degree. This will enable journalists to be competent researchers,” he told University World News.

Kazooba said the level of comprehension of some parliamentary reporters was very low yet they were supposed to understand debates and report on them accurately.

“Parliamentarians are depending on reporters who do not read, research or analyse issues. It is only after we have better qualified reporters that parliamentarians will read our reports that shall form the background to and guide debates in parliament.”

But some media experts disagree, saying journalists should first and foremost report the news.

“The primary duty of journalists is to listen and report back what they have heard, conveying the message as accurately as possible. Analysing and interpreting is secondary and not all journalists should do that,” said Kanabi of the East African Media Institute. “Journalists report on so many issues where they are not experts.”

What is a degree worth anyway?

Ambrose Kibuuka, a member of council at Kampala International University, argued that the assumption that a university degree enabled a person to develop analytical capabilities had “big fault lines”.

Many universities were no longer producing graduates grounded in academic rigour and with critical thinking abilities. There was a “copy and paste culture without solid thinking skills”.

Also, pursuing a degree was not the only means by which people learned analytical skills, which could also be developed through self-education, experience, mentoring or other avenues.

“Blanket and simplistic criteria are sometimes counter to the very values they are meant to advance,” said Kibuuka.

Makerere University dons said journalism schools tried to train students to cover parliament, but the orientation and consistent training that was important to institutions like parliament, where rules kept changing, should be done by them.

“Parliament should have a solid orientation and conduct refresher training for reporters to enable them to understand the legislature well. This can be done once or twice a year, considering that the turnover today in newsrooms is very high,” said Makerere’s Ivan Lukanda.