The dark history of Uganda’s media and past governments

Sunday June 2 2013

Police arrest a journalist outside the Monitor offices on May 28.

Police arrest a journalist outside the Monitor offices on May 28. The Human Rights Network for Journalists had organised a demonstration outside all the closed media houses, but the police dispersed them, arresting two in the process. PHOTO BY ISAAC KASAMANI. 

By Odoobo C. Bichachi

Kampala

When the Police surrounded Monitor Publications offices at mid-day on May 20, shutting down the press, switching off KFM and Dembe FM as it simultaneously shut down saucy tabloid Red Pepper, it demonstrated yet again that the state in Uganda might appear ambivalent many times but ultimately it remains one of the biggest challenges to media freedom.

President Yoweri Museveni and his NRM government – in power since 1986 – has been the epitome of this state ambivalence where his predecessors, notably Idi Amin Dada and Milton Obote, where outright hostile in a matter-of-fact manner. Yet make no mistake, the paranoia over the media has not been any less and several incidents in the last 27 years have clearly underlined this fact.

Thus while the latest action against the Monitor Publications and Red Pepper has been dressed in both legalese and pure brawn, the ultimate aim has not been lost on journalists, the country and the wider world. And borrowing from the books of repression and censorship, “national security” has been the official justification, never mind that national security can be defined as anything depending on who is defining and what their vested interests are.

Yet in many ways, this latest siege of Monitor and Red Pepper by the police was unprecedented both in operational terms and in scale of “attack”. This is because two major newspapers and two leading radio stations were shut down in one swoop with their premises being declared a “scene of crime” and occupied – at least for 11 days!

The only other time the state came close to this scale of media repression was in September 2009 when CBS radio, Radio Sapientia and Suubi FM were closed in the wake of the Buganda riots. Because these are electronic media, the government simply switched off the transmitters and did not have to deploy and seal off the premises. CBS was closed for 13 months though, a very long time by any standards in spite of widespread protests from within and without.

Old path of repression
Looking down the lane, it is clear Uganda’s post-independence governments have acted the same way in reaction to what they deemed “hostile” or “subversive” media coverage. It is a practice they picked from the colonial administration that brooked no criticism and banned several publications advocating for independence and fair trade opportunities for Africans.

According to a report titled “State of Media Freedom in Uganda” published recently by African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), the first shots against the media in post-independence Uganda came in 1966 when the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) government of Milton Obote deported Ted Jones, the Uganda correspondent for two Nairobi-based publications, the Kenya Weekly News and the Reporter as well as Billy Chibber, a reporter for Daily Nation, ironically today the majority shareholder in Monitor Publications. The government also closed Ssekanyolya, a pro-Buganda Kingdom newsletter that had been a thorn in the flesh of the colonial government.

It is worth noting that 1966 was the year of the Buganda Crisis when Obote’s government faced unprecedented opposition from within UPC and KY. If there are any lessons to pick here, it is that governments kick the media hardest when they are in political crisis.

In October 1968, the government struck again, arresting Rajat Neogy, the editor and publisher of pan-Africanist Transition magazine and his writer Abu Mayanja – who would in future serve as Museveni’s Information minister – on charges of sedition. The two were eventually acquitted but the magazine closed due to intense hostility from the regime. It would later re-locate to Ghana and subsequently USA. Last year, Transition marked 50 years since its birth with a public debate at Makerere University.

But it is the Amin years from 1971 to 1979 that were the most terrible for the media with several journalists paying the ultimate price of death for trying to do their job. And the defining moment came early, in February 1971, when Fr Clement Kiggundu, the editor of the Catholic-owned Munno newspaper – one of the oldest then – was found dead and burnt in his Volkswagen car at Namanve forest. His publication had been critical of the lawlessness that had emerged following the coup only a month earlier.

In the intervening years several other journalist were killed in the line of duty. They are John Serwaniko, also of Munno, ministry of Information photo journalist Jimmy Parma, and UTV journalist James Bwogi. Many others fled to exile.

The end of Amin, the entry of Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) government, and the return of Obote may have changed the political direction but for the media, the same old problems remained. Between 1980 and 1985 when Obote reigned for the second time, the media was heavily chained and suppressed.
“The ministry of Information operated like a censorship body and any story about the army had to be cleared by the minister personally,” Epajar Ojulu told this writer early this week at his Uganda Christian University (UCU) office in Mukono where he lectures journalism.

Ojulu was editor of the then government-owned Uganda Times. He would be unceremoniously sacked in 1984 after he penned an editorial highlighting the insecurity in and around Kampala. “Every night or morning as I drove to and from the newspaper office in Industrial Area, I would find dead bodies lying by the roadsides. I thought four years since the overthrow of Amin, we should not be having such insecurity in Kampala so I wrote an editorial to that effect. I was sacked the next day!” Ojulu recounts, adding that in those days, you could not write a “negative” story about President Obote, Vice President Paulo Muwanga, UPC secretary-general John Luwuliza Kirunda, and army chief-of-staff Maj Gen David Oyite Ojok among other powerful politicians.

Generally the Obote II regime was very bad for the media and saw several newspapers banned, among then the Weekly Topic and Citizen which metamorphosed in Munansi (Luganda for citizen) in form of a pamphlet that would catalogue many of civilians killed in Luwero Triangle.

Fundamental change or no change?
The arrival of the National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) rebels in town in January 1986 was announced as “a fundamental change, not a mere change of guards” by no less than the new President Yoweri Museveni in his inaugural address at Parliament. According to Solomon Bareebe, writing on his blog Tutajua.com and quoting from “Information, Freedom and Censorship, World Report 1991, Article 19, (Page 55)”, the warning shots were fired less than a month after that famous speech on the steps of Parliament. “I am putting journalists on notice that if they malign the good name of the National Resistance Army (NRA), they will be locked up under the detention law,” he reportedly said.

Within six months, the government had banned Weekend Digest for writing about an alleged coup plot involving sections of the Democratic Party (DP) and some foreign countries. Tom Mashate, the founder and editor shortly after fled to exile and recently won a landmark case and millions of dollars to go with it in a London court against President Museveni for closing down his media outlet in 1987.
His reporters Tony Owana and Wilson Wandera were questioned by police, in what would become the pattern of state harassment of the media for the next three decades.

Still in 1986, the editor of Focus, an Islamic leaning newsletter was charged with sedition for a story that claimed the NRA was having a tough time battling rebels in northern Uganda. This was followed by the 1987 arrest and prosecution of Francis Odida who was editor of Sunday Review for sedition after he published a mock interview of Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) rebel leader Alice Lakwena.

In February 1990, the country witnessed yet another assault on press freedom after three journalists – Festo Ebongu of New Vision, Alfred Okware of Third World Media and Hassan Abdi of BBC Kiswahili Service found themselves in trouble for asking then visiting Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda what the state deemed “embarrassing questions” at a joint press conference with President Museveni.

Hassan Abdi and Alfred Okware were briefly detained, questioned and charged for defaming a foreign dignitary while Festo Ebongu fled to exile in Canada where he still lives to date.

Shortly after the Kaunda debacle, the government suspended all accreditation permits of correspondents for foreign media organisations and asked them to re-apply. Those considered critical of government like Epajar Ojulu of the BBC were denied accreditation for allegedly filing “alarming, opinionated and manipulated” reports about Uganda. Ojulu had broken the Mukura massacre story on the BBC Focus on Africa programme at 15:15 GMT when 67 people were suffocated to death in disused train wagons at the height of the Teso insurgency.

Since 1986, according to the ACME report, at least one journalist has been charged with sedition or such related offence by the government every year! Thus between 1986 and 2010, at least 49 journalists were dragged before courts and charged for various offences including sedition, criminal libel and publication of false news.

The worst period seems to have been between 2007 and 2010 where 34 journalists were summoned by police and 25 of them charged. The other notable journalists who took early blows from the NRM government include Hussein Musa Njuki who was editor-in-chief of the Shariat newsletter and his sub editor Haruna Kanaabi. Njuki would later edit another Islamic weekly newsletter Assalaam. Njuki collapsed at Central Police Station (CPS) in Kampala where he had been detained following a story he published claiming Rwanda was the defacto 42nd district of Uganda after the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels won the war in 1994 with Uganda’s support. He died shortly thereafter at Mulago Hospital where he had been rushed.

Others are Maj Kakooza Mutale, then editor and publisher of Economy and Mulengera newspapers for sedition and defaming third deputy premier, minister of Justice and Attorney General, Abu Mayanja in 1991; Teddy Sseezi Cheeye of Uganda Confidential for sedition for alleging that government officials were practicing tribalism in giving out jobs and for adversely fingering First Lady Janet Museveni in a land conflict in her village in 1993; and Lawrence Kiwanuka of the Citizen also for sedition arising from a story critical of the NRA food ration scheme in 1991. He fled to US exile in 1996 fearing arrest after he interviewed renegade rebel leader Maj Herbert Itongwa Ssedyabane from his bush base camp.

Monitor’s share of the cross
For the Monitor, its run-ins with the state begun almost immediately it was founded in July 1992 when the state in 1993 stopped all government departments from advertising in the paper ostensibly because the paper was providing a platform to the opposition, especially UPC. The ban elapsed quietly four years later in 1997.

In the intervening years, several Monitor journalists have been dragged to court on charges of sedition, publishing false news and defamation. But the highpoints of Monitor’s brush with the state was in May 1999 when it published a photo of a woman (Candida Lakony) being shaved by men in military uniform, in 2002 when it published a story claiming a military helicopter had come down in the war zone in northern Uganda where the army was battling Lords Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, and now in May 2013 after it published a leaked letter by Gen David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza, alleging assassination plots against senior government officials deemed opposed to the so-called “Project Muhoozi” to have Brig Muhoozi Kainerugaba “inherit” the presidency of the country from his father, President Yoweri Museveni.

In 1999, editors Wafula Oguttu, Charles Onyango Obbo and David Ouma Balikoowa were arrested and prosecuted for publishing seditious and false news just as they were again prosecuted in 2002 on the same charges and the newspaper closed for 10 days. In the latest incident, editor Don Wanyama and reporters Richard Wanambwa and Risdel Kasasira were questioned by police and the newspaper shut down for 11 days.

Monitor’s sister outlets KFM and NTV have too suffered the wrath of the state. In 2005, KFM was closed after talk-show host Andrew Mwenda made remarks the state deemed unpalatable following the helicopter crash in which South Sudan leader John Garang died while on his way back home after talks with President Museveni at his Rwakitura country home. NTV was closed in October 2006 for three months over unclear regulatory issues.

‘Scene of crime’ as new tool
With the powers of the minister of Information to close a media house that the colonial administration and the Obote governments so ruthlessly used curtailed by the 1995 Constitution and the Press and Journalist Statute (1998), the NRM government fished out a mundane provision from the Police Statute normally applied in cases of murder and robbery to secure a scene of crime against possible destruction of evidence.

Thus since 2002, the government has declared the premises of several media houses as “scenes of crime” so as to effectively curtail their operations thereby achieving what would otherwise be constitutionally impossible to shut down a media house.

The Monitor was one of the first victims of this “creative” application of the law when it was shut down for 10 days in 2002 following publication of the chopper story. The “law” would later be liberally used especially on electronic media with Radio Kyoga Veritas in Apac being one of the victims in 2003 for its coverage of the LRA war. It would again be used against Monitor-owned radio station KFM in 2005.

Scene of crime law was massively applied in September 2009 following the Buganda riots when four radio stations – CBS FM, Radio Sapiensa, Radio Akaboozi and Suubi FM – transmitters were declared scenes of crime in addition to violating contestable broadcasting regulations. CBS FM would remain closed for more than one year, while the others were allowed back on air after several weeks, several apologies and several promises.

On May 20, the police again invoked this provision to effectively shut down the operations of Daily Monitor and its sister radio stations KFM and Dembe FM on the one hand, and Red Pepper and sister publications Hello and Kamunye.

Ultimately, there is no doubt that the current government has afforded the media much more wriggle room than past regimes. This has enabled the media to grow exponentially with now over 200 radio stations and vibrant newspapers. Yet faced with a crisis of power, it has acted very much in the tradition of the past as we witnessed in the last few days. The coming years as political pressure mounts on the government and political succession becomes inevitable will tell us just how far down the old path we will be going.

cbichachi@ug.nationmedia.com

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