Broaden approach to media policy
For some of us who have been following the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Bill 2022, it was sad that Parliament passed it. Whereas it was conceived presumably to protect children, it was retrogressive in many ways and many people pointed this out.
There has been a long tradition of enacting laws for media regulation in Uganda based on assumptions that people generally respond to rewards and punishment. We often forget the reward part, and intricately focus on the punishment of misbehaviour of journalists, and in this case, all citizens exercising their communication rights.
We are not the only ones, grappling with the harmful effects of new media. Yet, in some places, the approach is markedly different.
As I write this column, I am in Stockholm, Sweden, where I have been studying the Swedish Media policy, its media, and regulation thereof.
Together with my colleagues in the International Training Programme for Media Development in a Democratic Framework, sponsored by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), through NIRAS, Fojo Media Institute, Global Reporting and Institute for Media Studies, we interacted with various institution responsible for the media in Sweden.
We learnt that the Swedish government logic to media regulation is hands off. Each agency, funded by government, executes their responsibility in service of the public, and not the state, because their fidelity is to the Freedom of Expression Act. The public remains at the centre.
They are aware of a strong media impact too. But they have approached this in two ways. The first, the industry regulates itself, through the media ombudsman, who investigates complaints, and the judgement is respected.
The punishment is a publication of an apology, which the Swedish media considers very shameful, and does everything to avoid. No ban, no revocation of licence or other serious form of punishment. The law is respected and enforced by each government agency responsible, seeing their role as independent and in service of the public.
What we found even more interesting is a move to save journalism, to make up for the advertising revenue that media houses are facing, through a robust media subsidy system. This support to media includes commercial and community media. You only need to be working as news media. The criteria for support is clear and public media does not get any adverts.
The Swedish Media Council has an interesting mandate-to empower children and the youth as conscious media users, contributing to their protection from harmful media influences, survey media trends and habits in children and young people, and offer guidance on their media use. Part of their mandate also includes film classification and supporting media and information literacy. They are adequately funded.
The Swedish Media Council approach is to prevent and protect children rather than to punish. Empowerment of users and child rights approach is very key for them. And they think it works really well, and would like to keep it that way. The government does not look at media actors for income, not even commercial media pays licence, except a few on terrestrial network.
The history of state-media relations in most of our countries, makes it difficult for our legislators to imagine that responsible media use can be cultivated by focusing on the consumers, empowering users and that consumer choice, in a diverse media world, would render unethical media difficult to sustain, and perhaps pushed out of the market. We assume, that punishment will beat everyone into a straight line. But that is not often possible.
Maybe our legislative agenda for the media needs to be broadened beyond punishment of misbehaviour, for us to appreciate the place of media in democracy and development. We need to begin to look at basic motivations and incentives for people to use media responsibly, and answer the question as to why people are doing the things they are doing, understanding that a basic approach to carrot and stick will not always work. This is people’s communication practices we are talking about. And the tools are in their hands, not in the way radio could be controlled years ago.
Hopefully, the promised new legislation that the Ministry of ICT is working on, will adopt a rather broad approach to media policy and legislation, in a way that regulates and facilitates.
Ms Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.