I remember visiting the offices of The Monitor in the mid-1990s and finding the entire group of top bosses of the paper in what appeared to be a very dimly lit squashed area of space. To be able to have an interview with one of its founders, Mr Onyango-Obbo, we had to retreat to the National Theatre where we had an extensive discussion about Uganda. I admired and contrasted dramatically from the realities that I had left behind in Nairobi.
I had followed events in Uganda through publications like the EastAfrican and Uganda Confidential which astounded many of us in Kenya with its exposes and the granular detail it went into regarding the shenanigans of the high and mighty. I still remember the dramatic cover picture in The Monitor that featured the brutal abuse of Candida Lakony in May 1999.
Having survived 20 years as an independent paper started by patriotic journalists, The Monitor has earned itself pride of place in this great tradition. Sometimes to survive is also in itself an achievement requiring reflection, congratulation and respect. Congratulations dear Monitor – you are still here!
That The Monitor is celebrating its 20th anniversary is a testament to how much Uganda has changed; the foresight and tenacity of its founders; and, I should argue, the extent to which a publication like The Monitor contributed to the transformation taking place after 1986. As a result The Monitor has become an institution much like its partner the Nation Media Group in Kenya, which deliberately started out as the champion of the majority in the 1960s.
It does to recall how this important institution was started in 1992 by the likes of Wafula Oguttu, Charles Onyango-Obbo, Jimmy Serugo, David Ouma, the late Richard Tebere and the late Kevin Aliro. I am told the paper started in a donated dark basement with beer crates as chairs. Within a month another friend of freedom had provided new space at a subsidised rent and yet another friend advertised in the paper before it hit the street for the first time. There are those who would argue that when all these factors are put together, The Monitor was Uganda’s first truly crowd sourced product.
This newspaper survived a government-advertising ban between 1993 and 1998. This forging by fire would seem to actually have had the opposite effect on the founders who became even more creative to survive.
It would seem to me that for over a decade after 1986 Uganda was a nation consumed by idealism and optimism about the future. When I travelled here, everything was being debated, every policy was being contested. It was alarming for me to sit in groups that included government officials and find myself witnessing a heated debate on policy issues that would not have been discussed in front of civil servants, let alone soldiers in Kenya. My sense is that in the new century things changed as they did for all media.
Today there would seem to be three types of media. One that focuses on escapism: light social issues, titillating gossip, sex, etc. Second, we will have partisan pro-state media in which propaganda can often replace news. Then you will have an independent media fraternity – critical of the establishment, some would argue at times excessively so.
I would not be incorrect in concluding from all the photographs of your founders in court that The Monitor has not always been viewed as a friend of the current administration. And yet as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of what is now an esteemed multi-platform stable of media products, we keep in mind that there was an important period in the history of Uganda, say between 1992 and 2005 when The Monitor was the voice of what can broadly be defined as a voice of the opposition. Keeping this fire alive was critical to Uganda’s history.
Today, another existential transition looms for Uganda and it would seem incumbent that The Monitor will be at the heart of defining its character. For the great institution of The Monitor, I am certain there are periods of much needed reflection about how to maintain the initial passion and commitment that founded the paper; the free and, deeply and unapologetically inquisitive and hard driving journalism that made The Monitor.
One has to be watchful of the convergence of political and commercial interests that can dampen an introspective and intellectually adventurous journalistic spirit critical at this juncture in Uganda’s history. The challenge facing The Monitor is not to stay in business, those days are gone, the challenge is to stay in journalism.
With a proliferation of FM stations and talk shows, this is an ideal environment for The Monitor as it faces its next 20 years – the challenge of recapturing that spirit of its founders and become a multi-media innovative multi-platform galvanizer of public debate in Uganda; to become the platform where the vast opportunities and challenges of the future are contested; where a vision of the future that is prosperous, free, inclusive, pluralistic and free of fear can be imagined for a generation.
This is an abridged speech by Mr Githongo, CEO of Inuka Kenya Ltd, during Monitor’s 20th anniversary.