BABIRYE M. BABALANDA: The media should defend “freedom of Mother Nature”

I take this opportunity to belatedly congratulate the Media fraternity upon reaching and marking this year’s world Press Freedom Day which fell last Friday, May 3, 2024. The theme for this year was: “A press for the planet, journalism in the face of environmental crisis.” 

This well-meaning theme was most timely, coming at a time when His Excellency the President last month on April 19, 2024 launched the National Patriotism Environmental Program. This program, which is coordinated by the Patriotism Secretariat in the Office of the President is challenging the young people to rise up and defend and preserve their environment through pro-active and patriotic actions and messages.

World Press Freedom Day found me in Kabale, Western Uganda, where I presided over the historic launch of the Kabale Media Practitioners Association, the first of its kind in Greater Kigezi. I commend the interim leadership of the association for extending the invitation to me. As a friend of the media, I had to be there and support the initiative of uniting media practitioners towards improving their vocation.

I am happy that the Journalists in Kabale have taken up the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day to address the serious environmental challenges in the greater Kigezi area. Kigezi is witnessing serious environmental set-backs that need to be addressed urgently. Their campaign is in line with the program of the Patriotism Secretariat.

His Excellency the President has for several years raised the matter of protecting the environment and the natural ecosystem through preservation of the swamps and the notified wetlands, but this has largely fallen on deaf ears of unpatriotic people who have ignored this advice. The President has gone ahead to issue directives requiring that all encroachers in wetlands and other protected areas are removed from there, either voluntarily or forcefully in compliance with the law. In regard to the directive, a lot remains to be done.

If the President’s advice was taken seriously, the challenges we are talking about (in Kabale, and Uganda at large) today would largely be minimized. But the “I don’t care” attitude, the lack of the spirit of patriotism and the greed and corruption in our people, are the factors fueling environmental degradation and they are the reason we are still grappling with these problems.

However, there is hope for better since the President is a man of many approaches. Most of those damaging our environment are simply short on love for their country-that is to say, they are not patriotic. If a new generation of patriots is built and takes up this campaign to amplify your voices against degradation of our green cover, i am convinced that in the next years, Uganda- and Kabale in particular- will be a shining example, green, cool, safe, fertile and a true Pearl of Africa. It’s a shame and disappointing for Uganda to face desertification when countries that were previously deserts or those not endowed with our beautiful climate are becoming green.

In China, many of the streets-have been planted with trees- and now China is increasingly green. It is avenues everywhere, yet in our own urban centers coming across a tree is a miracle. “Greening” is something we can achieve in our country, given our beautiful weather conditions and fertile soils.

For the Kigezi, Busoga and Bukedi areas, H.E the President has underlined that our people were misled to carry out farming activities in the swamps well knowing that wetlands are safeguards of our environment. In short, people may farm in wetlands thinking that they are working for a livelihood but when nature reclaims its space, they risk losing everything, including their very lives, unfortunately. I want to reassure them that the President directed me to work with the Minister of Finance to come up with a strategy for alternative livelihoods and compensation for encroachers so that they can permanently leave the wetlands.

Basing on common sense, science, patriotism and responsible land use, the challenges we are talking about today will be significantly minimised.

Therefore, the press should give the campaign the prominence it deserves in terms of coverage so that the masses are fully mobilised on the values of preserving the swamps and other protected natural zones. You are called upon to be among the front line defenders of our environment! Just as the press cherishes its freedom, citizens cherish their freedom, wetlands- and Mother Nature in general- deserve their freedom!

On the side of media freedom, I am proud to say that Uganda is a country where media freedom-like other freedoms-are guaranteed. Uganda is a country where a journalist can freely practice his or her profession without undue interference or persecution. The NRM Government has seen the growth and expansion of media space. We have the biggest number of radio and TV stations, as well as newspapers, and now online (digital) media is on the increase.

All I do is to urge practitioners to stick to their professional principles while undertaking their journalistic duties.

The role of the media is to educate, inform and entertain the public. However, it is surprising that this has changed over the time. Some journalists deliberately choose to act contrary. Note that the media can build or destroy, but many today specialize in destroying and sowing seeds of hatred in the public. I appeal to such not to awaken sleeping ghosts!

In an era of social media where everyone is equipped to write and say anything and post for the whole world to see, I want to say that this is the best time for mainstream media to serve humanity better. Users of social media are not professionals and they don’t sieve what they post. Professional media houses should help debunk the falsehoods disseminated on social media.

Journalists should avoid becoming partisan activists because that goes against the ethics of the profession and attracts undue reprisal that may see them dragged to face the law , whereas there is a lot of progressive information not well covered. People want more news on how to do business or to improve their PDM and Emyooga enterprises; the school goers want career guidance, and so on.

In conclusion, I appreciate the leadership of Kabale Media Practitioners Association and the Human Rights Network for Journalists for the invitation to Kabale and the cordial interaction with members of the all-important fourth estate.

The write is the Minister for the Presidency