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.
In 1993, a string of disturbing developments from the death in a grenade attack of Makerere University lecturers Francis Kidubuka, Prof Dan Mudoola (who had been chairman of the Constitution Review Commission) to the killing of two West Africans by ESO intelligence agents near Kibimba Rice Scheme, the assassination of rebel leader Amon Bazira in Kenya were vigorously investigated by The Monitor.
This new emphasis on investigating mysterious murders and covert activities by the government turned The Monitor into a state enemy and later that year, the government slapped an advertising ban on the paper by all government ministries and departments. It would only be lifted four years later in 1997.
Social and economic problems were also a major part of The Monitor’s early news and commentary coverage.
Staff writers like Dismas Nkunda, Onapito Ekomoloit and the late Lillian Nsubuga reported and commented on the economic dislocation being brought on by the recently introduced privatisation of the Ugandan economy and the widespread retrenchment of thousands of civil servants, most without their retirement payment and other forms of gratuity.
Slowly by slowly, week by week, The Monitor in its reporting was puncturing the complacency of the majority of the Ugandan population, particularly the southern Bantu-speaking people. The NRM’s tenure in office was not as rosy as state media and Western governments and media portrayed it.
In 1998, the government-owned New Vision paper itself clashed with the government when it reported that the army (or a section within the army) were secretly and illegally shipping cars to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A row broke out, with the army threatening to sue the New Vision, and the New Vision standing by its story.
Last year, 2013, Bukedde, the Luganda language sister paper to the New Vision, took to regularly reporting on the plight of the population in the small countryside towns where doctors went for months without pay and government hospitals did not have medicine.
This is the perspective from which to understand the Daily Monitor, one of the most influential newspapers ever in Ugandan history.
Far from it publishing rumours and unsubstantiated reports, it was this very accuracy of The Monitor’s front-page news stories about troubling scandals and massive theft or loss of public funds that infuriated the NRM government.
So if what the Daily Monitor used to report in the mid 1990s is what The Shariat, Citizen and even the New Vision also reported, why is the Daily Monitor constantly the focus of government pressure and occasional shutdowns to this day?
The reason is because the Daily Monitor is the most influential newspaper in Uganda.
The Daily Monitor’s national and international influence
According to the international Internet tracking website Alexa.com, the Daily Monitor since mid 2009 has been and remains the most-visited Ugandan website of any kind, receiving more traffic than its main rival the New Vision.
Most crucially, though, Western and other diplomatic missions in Uganda peruse the paper’s news and commentary pages to get a more accurate understanding of the political atmosphere in the country.
Since the New Vision is a government paper, its reporting is treated as would be expected of a government paper.
The Daily Monitor is a mainstream, corporate-type daily newspaper like the New Vision with bureaus in various towns and a wide range of subjects covered.
But its influence stems from an important difference with the New Vision: more than just reporting the straight news, it typically takes on a form of activist journalism, pressing the government to respond to the distress among ordinary Ugandans.
Its commentary pages shaped public opinion in the 1990s, which is what enabled it to weather the government advertising ban.
It appeals to the most influential section of the Ugandan population --- lawyers, journalists, academics, civil society activists, human rights defenders and Ugandans living abroad.
Since the 1990s, much of what The Monitor reported in its early years has become a fact of life in Uganda --- massive, almost malicious corruption; the plight of Uganda’s rural population; abuse of human rights by state security agencies; the moves to a virtual life presidency by Yoweri Museveni and the disproportionate share of top government jobs and tenders by people from part of western Uganda.
In November 2005, the Daily Monitor got a tip-off that commandoes of the Black Mamba squad that had invaded the High Court to re-arrest FDC leader Dr Kiiza Besigye were now being disguised as police officers.
Acting on this tip-off, photographs were discreetly taken and published on the paper’s front page next to the same men in their original army uniform.
This going the extra mile to unearth facts that the state would rather remained out of public view, this doing what in Jazz music is termed “playing by the ear” when the formal rules of classroom journalism do not apply in fast-moving and dangerous circumstances and editors, reporters and photographers must think on their feet about how to cover a tip-off or an unfolding story --- is what has made the Daily Monitor the paper that it is in Uganda.
Only about a third of what most political editors, reporters and commentators at the Daily Monitor know is ever published. If the rest of what is known in the newsroom about the happenings in Uganda were to be fact-checked and published as it is, that is when the paper would be closed permanently by the government.
To understand how newspapers, especially those that emphasise political reporting, go about their business, the political climate in Uganda has to be understood.
The law is often used as a political weapon by which to cripple, or inconvenience or intimidate the NRM government’s critics. That is why radio stations or newspapers can be shut down, and then for no apparent reason or the reason for which they were shut down not having been concluded or resolved, they are re-opened.
Charges are brought against editors and reporters, who are then made to report to the courts for years, then abruptly the charges are dropped one day, the state having long ago lost interest in the case that it brought in the first place.
Uganda is now a much more distrustful society than it was during the 1990s. The state is viewed with suspicion by the public.
Between June 2007 and about May 2009, the Monitor website lost some readers and it fell behind the New Vision website in traffic. This was the period when the public got the impression that the Daily Monitor had been silenced or intimidated by State House.
That is the situation the paper finds itself. The more it drifts toward the bland editorial approach of the government papers, the more it angers it core readers.
The more it publishes a formula of straight reporting and critical commentary, the more loyal its readers remain and the more it retains its number one ranking in Internet traffic among all Ugandan media outlets.