In the Daily Monitor of May 14, 2014, the paper’s Executive Editor Malcolm Gibson laid out his new policy on reporting by staff journalists. He explained his new, “hyper-strict” restrictions on how much leeway staff reporters have to comment on the news and other public matters in the pages of the paper and on Internet forums.
The new guidelines, wrote Mr Gibson, are part of a move to “repair our reputation [Daily, Saturday and Sunday Monitor’s] and the perception (which, unfortunately, is correct in most cases) that personal views do determine how we approach and report stories.”
The tone of that column appeared to suggest that a review of the Daily Monitor’s reporting and quality control had recently taken place and it was decided to tighten oversight of the editorial team.
Anything to demand more accurate and unbiased reporting is welcome in Ugandan journalism. Accuracy certainly is a problem in Ugandan journalism, with readers over the years commenting that what the headline suggests and what the story contains in many Ugandan newspapers are often two different things.
The more contentious matter, though, is the one about bias, especially as alleged by the government. The assertion has been made since the mid 1990s that The Monitor (as it was then called) was “biased” because it was an “anti-government” paper.
The complication with this is that the NRM government itself had and has a vested interest in how the news is reported, being the subject of much news reporting, and so cannot be the most reliable source by which to assess the Daily Monitor’s supposed bias.
The best arbiter over the question of bias would have to be a court of law, a media industry watchdog, preferably a foreign one or --- as the paper’s then Editor Charles Onyango-Obbo used to argue in his column “Ear to the Ground” in 1992 and on Capital Radio’s Capital Gang show in 1994 --- the marketplace of ideas, the readers and advertisers.
The Monitor’s origins in the optimistic early 1990s
The Daily Monitor was founded on July 24, 1992 by a number of editors formerly at the Weekly Topic newspaper founded in May 1979 by three politicians Kintu Musoke, Ali Kirunda Kivejinja and Jaberi Bidandi-Ssali.
These three founders joined Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) party in 1980 and when Museveni came to power in 1986, became prominent members of the NRM government.
The Weekly Topic editors Wafula Oguttu, David Ouma Balikoowa, Kevin Aliro, Charles Onyango-Obbo and Richard Tebere disagreed with what they felt was pressure being exerted on them by the Weekly Topic’s proprietors to ease on some particularly hard-hitting reporting against NRM government excesses.
They resigned in protest and founded The Monitor, which started out at a basement along Entebbe Road, went on to Dewinton Road for four years until 1996, and finally to its present home at Namuwongo.
Why did the Weekly Topic editors criticise the NRM regime that much when, by all accounts, this new government was a breath of fresh air and had turned a new chapter for Uganda after 24 years of dictatorship, much bloodshed and political instability?
The reason is because this positive appraisal of the NRM government in its early years was largely an illusion, although the government managed to handle and shape its public rather well.
The NRM government, originally steeped in Marxist ideology, reluctantly adopted many economic policies recommended by the IMF in 1987 in what was termed the “Structural Adjustment Programmes”. In 1988, Uganda also resumed diplomatic relations with Israel which had been broken off in 1972 by the Idi Amin government.
The NRM pledged and started to compensate the non-citizen Ugandan Asians expelled in 1972 (even though official government documents show that these Asians were fully compensated by the Amin government by April 1974).
There was, in the southern half of Uganda, a sense of optimism about the present and future. The government loosened its tight control of the economy, foreign exchange trade, radio and television broadcasting and many state-owned corporations started to be privatised.
Because of these generally pro-Western economic policies and renewed relations with Israel after 1987 and 1988 respectively, the Western media, academia and governments viewed President Museveni and the NRM favourably.
However, right from 1986 newspapers like The Citizen, The Shariat and others were also drawing the public’s attention to some disturbing trends in the government --- armed robbery in broad daylight by senior army officers, a tendency to favour people from western Uganda in the awarding of government jobs and contracts, massive corruption and human rights abuses especially in northern and northeast Uganda.
Yet even when The Monitor was founded in July 1992, while claiming to act as a critical eye on government affairs, it treated these NRM years as a return to reason, enlightened debate and a far cry from the brutal past.
In its “Flashback” features on Ugandan history, The Monitor, while usually sceptical, could not hide that implicit faith in the NRM government sentiment from its pages.
Idi Amin was almost always referred to as “Dictator Idi Amin” and the second Milton Obote government also in negative terms.
When the Museveni regime was criticised by The Monitor’s editors, reporters, columnists, in letters to the editor from readers and by many in academia, the arguments tended to express how “It is disappointing that the NRM is behaving like the regimes which it fought to liberate Uganda from”.
Contributors to The Monitor and The Monitor staff themselves went to some length to explain that the criticism they offered or the wrong policies they pointed out were done in good faith and this criticism in good faith should be taken as the kind one gives a friend or relative that one wishes well.
Monitor ‘supported NRM’
Therefore, contrary to the current perception of the Daily Monitor as being established as an “anti-government” paper from the start, it actually was supportive of the NRM in its first few months.
Only after August 1992, did The Monitor’s tone start to decisively change.
1993: The Monitor embarks on investigative reporting
The paper’s Editor Charles Onyango-Obbo, at that time still in the United States, broke a news story on a scandal involving the attempted purchase of more than 400 TOW anti-tank missiles by the Ugandan army.
The Deputy Principal Private Secretary to the President, Capt Innocent Bisangwa, along with Uganda’s ambassador to the United States, Stephen Katenta-Apuuli, two former Egyptian army officers, an American woman and a Turkish-American citizen were arrested by the US FBI in Orlando, Florida.
In 1991, a Uganda Airlines Boeing 707, with arms from Zagreb in the then Yugoslavia, was seized.
This Uganda Airlines saga, the quiet military support to the RPF rebels fighting in Rwanda and the arrest of Capt Bisangwa started to get a few Ugandans worried.
The feeling grew that there was a murky side to the Museveni government, a government which away from public view conducted secretive, mafia-like paramilitary operations abroad.
The Monitor now started to scrutinize the NRM regime more carefully and suspiciously. But because of this paramilitary and covert intelligence operations that characterised the Museveni government’s policies, inevitably most of The Monitor’s sources had to be kept secret and there was never an open way to verify these stories.
However, as the recent revelations of online spying by the former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed the world, just because a claim by a source cannot be verified or substantiated in the conventional journalistic sense, does not mean it is not true.