BY SAM WAKHAKHA
On December 6, 2022, the presidential press secretary, Farouk Kirunda issued an order barring journalists without COVID-19 vaccination certificates from covering State House functions.
In a notice sent to news editors and managers on December 2, Kirunda, said journalists who do not have COVID-19 vaccination certificates would not be allowed to cover President Yoweri Museveni.
“Accordingly, you should advise your staff to visit the Ministry of Health portal located at: epivac.health.go.ug. to access their COVID – 19 Vaccination Certificates,” Kirunda’s notice read.
The directive, which became effective on December 12, has drawn mixed reactions from the journalists’ union leaders, with some in support and others against it. Whereas some leaders of the journalism fraternity agreed with the directive, some said it was not necessary.
Robert Ssempala, the executive director of the Uganda Human Rights Network for Journalists, said the State House team should use persuasion instead of making it mandatory for people to get vaccinated.
“There should be a deliberate effort to interest and persuade, not just journalists but all Ugandans to get vaccinated and protect their health. Even where people who lack vaccination certificates, but have the negative test results should be allowed to cover the President,” he said in an interview with this reporter.
Ssempala said a vaccination certificate does not mean that one does not have COVID-19.
“Even when someone is vaccinated, it does not mean that they cannot get COVID-19. So, a certificate should not be a yardstick for blocking or allowing people to cover the President,” he said, adding that the directive even infringes on people’s right to consent or choose whether to get vaccinated or not.
Ssempala said the effort to encourage vaccination should not be seen to be targeting only journalists. “It goes against their right to choose between taking the jab or declining. Any proof of negative results should be enough,” he said.
But Sam Ibanda Mugabi, the Uganda Parliamentary Press Association president, welcomed the idea. He said the directive was meant to protect the health of journalists.
“The vaccination requirement to cover State House functions is a good idea because it will encourage some of our colleagues who have not yet been vaccinated to take the jabs to protect their own health. Since vaccination is free, I don’t see the reason why some of our colleagues have refused to take jabs,” said Mugabi.
“Even if we were to pay for it, protecting life is a priority. It is better that some of our colleagues who have not been vaccinated.”
He reasoned that the President is not saying it in bad faith but rather protecting lives, including our people at home and in the communities. “We meet different people every day. So if we get COVID-19, many people will get it,” he said.
Mugabi said being essential workers, journalists ought to be vaccinated because they meet different people whose CODID-19 status they do not know.
“As journalists, we mix with many people whose COVID-19 status we do not know. So getting vaccinated protects us. We also have journalists that cover health. They are always in heath facilities looking for news. They even don’t know the health status of people they meet in hospitals,” he said.
Mugabi also said if journalists get vaccinated, the public will also trust the vaccines and get the shots.
“Since we are the ones that convey news to other people, getting vaccinated will make us act as an example. Our media houses are being used to pass on the pro-vaccination messages. If I the president of UPPA gets vaccinated, a number of people will get vaccinated because they trust me,” he said.
Stephen Ouma Bwire, the general secretary of the Uganda Journalists Union (UJU), says the requirement by the Presidency to vaccinate Journalists assigned to State House is welcome as long as journalists are ready and willing to be subjected to the requirement.
“It provides safety to all State House guests including the Presidency. The Presidency provides best practices that they walk the talk on matters pertaining to vaccination against Covid-19,” said Ouma.
He however, said this should not be done forcefully as it would be a violation of Article 29 of the Ugandan constitution that guarantees Freedom of Expression including freedom to disagree or decline to take up the vaccination procedures.
“Any attempts to force Journalists to vaccinate would be received with big protests and boycott of Presidential events,” Bwire said.
Uganda registered its first COVID-19 case on March 20, 2020, after which schools were closed and a lockdown announced. At 22 months, Ugandan had the longest COVID-19-related school closure in the world. They were closed in March 2020 and fully reopened in February 2022.
In Uganda, only 32.1% (12,950,873) of the population has been fully vaccinated out of the targeted 49%.