CJ Owiny-Dollo urges Monitor to promote human rights

Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo gives the keynote speech during the public dialogue to mark the 30th Anniversary of Monitor Publications Ltd at the Kampala Serena Hotel on August 4,2022. PHOTO/ STEPHEN OTAGE

What you need to know:

  • Chief Justice Alfonse Chigamoy Owiny – Dollo, says The Monitor respects the courts of law and seeks their help when there are problems.

In a country where quite a sizeable number of businesses fail to make it to their 5th birthday, I found the invitation not only to join, but to make the keynote address at this momentous celebration in commemoration of 30 years of service by a leading publication quite a humbling honour. Without giving it a second thought, I readily accepted to perform the task. However, when the enormity of the theme of the day: “Examining Monitor’s Institutional Impact and the Future of Journalism” sank in, I sobered up as the folly of my hastily made decision to respond in the affirmative dawned on me; and the sense of honour instantly evaporated, and was substituted by that of apprehension. What with those poring, inquiring and investigating minds, all intently focused at me, seeking to attribute a non–existent meaning to every utterance I will make here, other than the plain and clear meaning of the statements? 

Journalists can have a wry and occasionally cruel sense of humour. It is, however, always nice to share a platform with them; for they make excellent company for rich intellectual or informed discourse. With the benefit of hindsight now, I can discern that the reason I was so forthcoming in acquiescing to the request is that for a long time, a good journalist bosom friend of mine, persistently and incessantly made a very provocative and irritating reference to me as “Liar”; instead of “Lawyer” which is what I am. I took the blow with tongue in cheek grace, but did not remain lying down. I coined an apt response to this unprovoked assault; and always shot back referring to him as “Rumour Monger”.

It was a very effective antidote! Whoever excluded journalists from the enviable classification of members of the learned profession, which comprises lawyers, medical doctors, and theologians, committed a sacrilegious act of disservice to society. 

The choice of this topic for today’s dialogue resonates very well with the mouthful undertakings made by the founders of The Monitor newspaper in the editorial of their first issue dated July 31, 1992. They promised a paper run on “a national democratic line”. I expected the next lines to be full of such material as dialectical material, dung heap of history, petty bourgeois, and a host of other marxist utterances. That was, however, not to be. Instead, the good fellows came across as very serious young men who knew what they had embarked on pursuing. Key in their “guiding virtues” was the pursuit of “democratic practice, observance of human rights, unity of Ugandans in diversity … … and play the game fairly according to the rules and ethics of responsible journalism”, among the numerous undertakings.  

In a statement he made in 1921, on the occasion marking the Guardian newspaper’s centenary celebration, P.S. Scott, the founding publisher of the newspaper, had this to say:  “A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business, like any other, and has to pay in material sense in order to live. But it is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and it influences the whole community.” 

With the undertakings made by the founders of The Monitor, and the quote by P.S. Scott cited above as reference points, I consider it necessary to exercise the imperative of self–restraint, and address this topic of The Monitor @ 30 from only four perspectives; namely:  The Monitor as a home grown professional media house, The Monitor as a defender of human rights, the role of the Judiciary in the promotion of media freedom and looking ahead.

A home grown media house 

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Report, 2016 rated Uganda as the world’s most entrepreneurial country, The report also stated that the failure of business in the country was as well the highest in the world; because for every business started, another is closed. The 30 years The Monitor rightly boasts of is quite commendable. I, therefore, wish to congratulate The Monitor for its remarkable achievement in its consistent quest to keep the public informed, educated, and even entertained. Knowing that it has made these gains notwithstanding numerous challenges it has been confronted with from its inception, it deserves approbation for the laudable spirit of consistency it has exhibited. 

The Monitor recognises the importance of the courts of law; and whenever it is faced with real or perceived threats to media freedom, it turns to the courts of law for remedial intervention. This attests to the resilience, focus and seriousness of purpose of the leadership of The Monitor; and the commitment of the staff as well as the support of stakeholders, particularly its readers.

The journey of The Monitor is indeed no less than an account of strong-minded individuals. Many of us do recall that the founders of The Monitor were a rebellious young Turks who, as it were, staged a ‘break out’ from the Weekly Topic newspaper, and have since made an indelible mark on the Ugandan print media landscape.

I can speak with utmost certitude that since then, The Monitor has steered the course without, even once, compromising the quality of its product. I consider it fitting to commend and congratulate all the journalists at The Monitor for adhering to the forward-looking vision that has ensured the entity remains relevant today as it was when it was founded.

Left to right: ICT and National Guidance minister Chris Baryomunsi, Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo, and Nation Media Group-Uganda Board chairperson Samuel Sejjaaka at the Kampala Serena Hotel for the Monitor@30 dialogue on August 4, 2022. In the back is Managing Director of Nation Media Group Uganda Tony Glencross PHOTO/STEPHEN OTAGE

Owing to what we have witnessed, and know of it, The Monitor presents a case study of how to successfully establish a business entity in Uganda; and as well ensure effective succession by the next generation of managers. More important, however, The Monitor has in its 30 years of existence, adhered to the undertaking it bound itself to, and made remarkable contributions to the pursuit of freedom of expression; for which it has indisputably earned commensurate recognition.  Freedom of the press falls within the scope of freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 29 of the Constitution. In the oft-cited case of Charles Onyango Obbo vs Attorney General, Odoki CJ succinctly defined this freedom as follows:

“Freedom of the press is considered as the right to investigate and publish freely. But as Lord Denning said in Schering Chemicals vs Falkman Ltd (1981) 2 W.L.R. 848, freedom of the press “covers not only the right of the press to impart information of general interest or concern but also the right of the public to receive it”.

Freedom of the press has attained international recognition as a human right, a corner stone of democracy, and a means of ensuring respect for all human rights and freedoms. This freedom is similarly guaranteed under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); Article 19 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR); and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. 

The press is an indispensable participant and factor in ensuring that the rule of law reigns in society. In the case of Mark Gova Chavunduka & another vs The Minister of Home Affairs and another,  the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe enumerated the objectives of the freedom of expression as follows:
“Furthermore, what has been emphasised is that freedom of expression has four broad special objectives to serve: (i) it helps an individual to obtain self-fulfilment; (ii) it assists in the discovery of truth and in promoting political and social participation; (iii) it strengthens the capacity of an individual to participate in decision making; and (iv) it provides a mechanism by which it would be possible to establish a reasonable balance between stability and change.”

In the same vein, in the case of Manika Ghandhi vs Union of India,  the Supreme Court of India articulated the importance of freedom of expression in the promotion of the democratic dispensation, by stating that:

“… [democracy] cannot survive without a free press. Democracy is based essentially on a free debate and open discussion; for that is the only corrective of government actions in a democratic set up. If democracy means government of the people by the people, it is obvious that every citizen must be entitled to participate in the democratic process and in order to enable him to intelligently exercise his right of making a choice, free and general discussion of public matters is absolutely essential.” 
The founders of The Monitor set themselves on a mission to provide information, and to educate and inform the public. Democracy demands citizens’ participation in their governance. This they do by making well-informed decisions as to who governs them and the manner they are governed. Through their maxim: “Truth Every Day” The Monitor has undoubtedly made contribution to the promotion of good governance in Uganda. In his popular column published in the Daily Monitor last week, Charles Onyango-Obbo shared the travails and tribulations The Monitor has had to endure over the years from its inception.  What particularly caught my attention in that article was the extent to which The Monitor has gone in protecting its sources and whistle blowers, with a readiness to be interred with the secrets. This demonstrated dependability that only comes from a deep understanding, by a media house, of the noble call of journalism, and is the highest exhibition of professionalism.

Defender of human right

The promotion, protection, and defence of human rights, and the resultant realisation and enforcement of those rights, depend on the citizens’ appreciation of the means by which the rights can be enforced.  In the period of their existence this far, the Monitor Publications as a media house has been instrumental in shaping and contributing to jurisprudence because it fully understands the role the courts of law in the enforcement of rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

Some of the cases brought to court by journalists from The Monitor have become ‘locus classicus’ (leading authority or example) in the field of freedom of the press; and have gained international acclaim as authoritative or persuasive decisions. 

The case of Charles Onyango Obbo vs The Attorney General - Supreme Court Constitutional Appeal No. 2 of 2002, enjoys the attribute of having opened up media space by successfully challenging the criminal offence of publishing false news provided for under section 50 of the Penal Code Act. Charles Onyango Obbo and Andrew Mujuni Mwenda, who were respectively editor and senior reporter of The Monitor newspaper, were jointly charged under that law with the offence of “Publication of false news”. They had reportedly extracted the impugned story from a foreign paper called The Indian Ocean Newsletter, and published it in the Sunday Monitor of September 21, 1997, under the headline: “Kabila paid Uganda in Gold, says report”. The fundamental issue before Court for determination was whether section 50 of the Penal Code Act contravenes the protection provided for under Article 29 of the Constitution. 

Keynote Address by Chief Justice Alfonse Chigamoy Owiny – Dollo, at A Public Dialogue in Commemoration of the 30th Anniversary of Monitor Publications Ltd., Publisher of the The Monitor newspaper, held at Serena Kampala Hotel.