Saturday May 10 2014

Some notes on the media under President Museveni

By Asuman Bisiika

May 3, is International Press Day. For some social reasons, the day found me in the homely bowels of the Rwenzori Mountains.
Away from the heat of things in Kampala, I could only make a Facebook post reminiscing about my involvement in the media industry in Rwanda. However, I would like to write about the Ugandan media under President Museveni.
Between 1986 and 1996, President Museveni viewed the media as a function of political mobilisation. However, in the absence (banning?) of political parties, the media drifted to occupy the void left by the absence of political parties.

Indeed, when political competition increased in the electoral processes, the media started facing challenges. Museveni was not ready to have two challengers: the media and the opposition.
What we did not seem to know was that the political elite could only be tolerant to the media in as far as there was no organised political contest at the time.

Unfortunately for Museveni and the State, by 1996, the media had gained a socio-politically acceptable stature in articulation of policy and public interest issues.
Most of the people who contributed to the op-ed pages of the two major newspapers were mature and qualified to be national leaders in their own right.

Media Inc.
Between 1986-1996, The New Vision and Weekly Topic used to carry lengthy Op-Eds that led to the birth of what Charles Onyango-Obbo was later to call the Political Commentariat.
And so, with a respected Political Commentariat, the major friction between the media and the State was no longer based on the flimsy cases of defamation but the fear of the media’s capacity to influence civic and civil attitudes of the public.

But what revolutionised the media industry in Uganda was the Monitor’s editorial attitude. This attitude was a departure from the traditional impassive public rapporteur to a vanguard of civil liberties.
The significance of the Monitor’s attitude is that it forced the New Vision to seek another platform; because they (New Vison) could not mount a good challenge to the Monitor on the platform of vanguard of civil liberties (given the government’s ownership of the paper).

In response, William Pike at the New Vision decided to corporatise the New Vision. The Monitor could not match that but they did not have an alternative; they had to corporatise too.

Towards the end of 1996, the Monitor installed their own web-fed printing press that could print colour (a first); in addition to a sheet-fed commercial printer. With the reportage on the raging ADF war, the Monitor also had good sales. The significance of the corporatisation of media houses in Uganda is that the State was denied the opportunity of dismissing the media houses as street vendors; or as fishermen as President Museveni used to call them.
Because of Media Inc., the State now found itself dealing with media houses as national institutions making very huge tax remittances to the Treasury and offering social security for some citizens in form of employment.

Some people have argued that the Red Pepper was the most revolutionising agent in the media industry in Uganda. I tend to disagree. Their editorial interest in “the other side of things” was, after all, not new. There had been magazines with such editorial lines before.

Even with the thrilling experience of ‘guerrilla journalism’, Red Pepper is also corporatising. That is why they are now skewing their editorial content to a more conventional outlay.

My experience is that the character of the media is shaped by the obtaining social and political dynamics in a country and not vice versa. So, the problem we have in the Ugandan media lies in the ideological construction of the body politic and the structural organisation of power in Uganda.

Mr Bisiika is the executive editor of East Africa Flagpost.