I like to think that in the United States--as in most of the West--the respect accorded the press isn't due simply to laws such as the First Amendment, but to a deeply-held belief that journalism helps a society function. We may decry the press's errors--we should decry them--but we hold the press dear, and even when it stumbles we feel uneasy at the prospect of dismantling its safeguards, of jailing its practitioners.
That's in the United States. But most of the world isn't the United States and it's sobering for a well-fed, coddled, protected journalist such as myself to hear of colleagues in other countries harassed for simply doing their jobs. It's a job that can get you killed you in some places. In others it can land you in jail.
One such place is Uganda, where Bernard Tabaire is an editor at the Daily Monitor newspaper. I haven't met Mr. Tabaire but he was a Reuters Fellow here at Oxford last year so I feel for him even more of the kinship than one journalist feels for another. It sounds like his paper was on to a good story: Faith Mwondha, a government minister in charge of ferreting out corruption, appeared to be on shaky ground herself. The Monitor received a copy of a report suggesting that there were some salary irregularities involving Ms. Mwondha (known as "God's Warrior" for her take-no-prisoners approach to her job). Her response was to encourage the police to arrest what now numbers five Monitor journalists. The five have been charged with "unlawful publication of a defamatory manner." They're out on bail awaiting trial.
"In running the story, we wanted to show that the person fighting corruption needs to explain a few things," Tabaire wrote in an e-mail to the Reuters Institute. "That is our obligation."
The Monitor admits it got one element of the story wrong: The report criticizing Mwondha was not commissioned by the Ministry of Finance, as was initially reported, but by other officials in the government. That error is the hook upon which Mwondha is basing her case, a case which Tabaire argues should be a civil matter, not a criminal one.
What can be done? English PEN is urging interested parties in the U.K. to contact the Ugandan representative here and request that the charges be dropped and that journalists in that country be allowed to do their jobs. The address is: Her Excellency Mrs Joan Kakima Nyakatuura Rwabyomere, Uganda House, 58-59 Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DX. In the U.S., the contact is His Excellency Perezi Kamunanwire, Embassy of the Republic of Uganda, 5911 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20011.
I don't know how much good pressure from citizens in other countries will do. But it's worth a try. And it's nice to see that Tabaire and his colleagues have some support in Uganda, as evidenced by a blog item from a man named Moses Paul Sserwanga. "Democracy thrives best in an atmosphere of trust, openness and accountability," he writes.
Jailing journalists isn't the way to provide that.