Uganda lifts ban on CBS, staff celebrates with caution

Full, normal broadcasting of the Ugandan Central Broadcasting Service (CBS)–owned by Uganda’s powerful traditional Buganda kingdomresumed Monday after nearly 14 months of silence. While CBS staff welcomed their return to work, many recounted a tough year and questioned the nature of the station’s re-opening. 

The government-influenced Broadcasting Council summarily shuttered CBS and three other stations in September 2009, as Council Chairman Godfrey Mutabazi accused the broadcasters of inciting violence sparked by the government’s blocking of the Bagandan monarch from attending a youth celebration north of the capital, Kampala. (The other stations were returned to air quickly.) But when I pressed the chairman for examples of such incitement last month, none were given. CBS News Editor Ndiwalana Kiwanuka told me, “They took all the recordings to find any incriminating evidence of our broadcasts but they didn’t find anything.”

It has been a hard year for the station staff under the suspension. “Since CBS was closed, four members of its staff have died, some staff have not been able to send their children to school, others have sold their property to settle bank loans,” CBS reporter Joseph Kafumbe told me. Kafumbe kept reporting as best as he could on his blog, called KampalaToday, but was forced to find other means for survival. Other CBS staff started a private weekly in the Baganda language, Luganda, called Ggwanga (Nation), he said.

“They did not get much revenue from the venture but were at least consoled by the fact that they continued to promote the Bugandas’ cause,” Kafumbe said. Although the Baganda are the largest ethnicity in the country, many say they have remained politically marginalized. Other CBS staff linked up with more journalists to start another Luganda paper, a biweekly called Eddoboozi, while some scraped by recording advertisements and skits for radio and television, he added.

Although Minister of Information, Communication, and Technology Aggrey Awori lifted the ban on the stations, ostensibly with no conditions, Kafumbe said, the CBS staff are not convinced the station will be the same. For one thing, the station’s popular program “Mambo Bado,” remains off the air; the program that had local people calling in to voice their concerns about anything–from politics to a pop singer’s poor choice of attire. Further, while the station has re-opened, it still does not have an operating license and must re-apply to the Broadcasting Council.

“The radio was re-opened on political grounds, but its re-opening is not legally binding,” Mutabazi said in an October 25 report by the Ugandan Human Rights Network for Journalists. Mutabazi said the meeting between CBS management and the Broadcasting Council would convene soon to agree on the license terms and conditions.

While President Yoweri Museveni toured the country with ruling party members campaigning for the upcoming 2011 elections, citizens called on the leader, who has ruled for 24 years, to re-open the station, the Daily Monitor reported. “Everywhere they went, voters were mentioning CBS,” a spokesman for the Buganda Kingdom, Charles Mayiga, told Agence France-Presse. It seems apparent, local journalists told me, that it was Museveni and not the mandated Broadcasting Council who ordered the opening and closure of the station. “Some in Buganda may be so disillusioned that this makes no difference, but definitely government will do better in the elections after re-opening CBS,” Mayiga said in the AFP report.

Museveni needs Baganda electoral support. While Museveni may have taken away CBS’ critical fangs during the year, he can provide them baby teeth a few months prior to polls. If local journalists are correct in their assumptions that CBS’ fate actually rests in the hands of the president, then the CBS saga is a worrying reminder of how institutional autonomy can be destroyed along with press freedom. With a president who can instantly shut a media house under the guise of legitimate institutions, CBS may never again broadcast with its former fiery, critical stance.