I spent 22 of the 30 years of Daily Monitor’s existence in its newsroom. The newsroom experience is a long-winding and twisting trajectory.
A path congested with dare devil professional risks, security threats on both the publication and its journalists, but at the same time a curve of amazing inspiration in journalism.
At Monitor, we lived in chronic fear of the state crackdown. But there were also joyous moments when we felt there was no better place in Uganda’s journalism than at Monitor. The passion, the commitment, and the resilience were unparalleled.
I entered as an intern in mid 1996 from Makerere University and was later appointed city correspondent in November that year.
The paper headquarters was at the time situated on Dewinton Road, in Kampala, before moving in 1997 to its current home on 8th Street, Industrial Area, in Namuwongo.
My first major assignment was a nightmare. I was assigned to Buganda Road Chief Magistrate’s Court to cover judgement of a case where the then editor of Uganda Confidential, Teddy Sseezi Cheeye, was accused of rape. The judgement was constructed in unfamiliar language and I got lost in the legal jargon and ran scared.
How was I going to tell my editor, the no-nonsense Charles Onyango-Obbo, that I had no story because I could not understand the legal jargon? However, I was able to capture the conclusion of the judgment and was sure court had acquitted Cheeye.
I returned to the newsroom and briefed Obbo who told me to go and write the story. After submitting the story, I left but was not sure of the quality.
However, the next day Obbo called me to his office. I went scared of a reprimand. To my surprise he praised me. My story had appeared on the front page. He assigned me back to court. My stomach started rumbling like waterfalls.
But it was a defining assignment that later shaped me into a good court reporter of my time.
Journalists should not be held back by fear of failure on first assignments.
Persistence breeds success
At Monitor we worked at odd hours, sometimes past midnight. But the passion and zeal overshadowed all these odds.
In 1999, I covered Justice Julia Sebutinde’s Commission of Inquiry into alleged corruption in Uganda Police Force, where I filed news stories and transcribed proceedings verbatim. One day I returned late, wrote the story and submitted it. I started writing the verbatim, but it disappeared twice on my computer. I submitted the final copy at midnight and left Obbo at office.
Obbo was always the last to leave the newsroom, but he would be the first person in office the next day.
My experience later as editor was not all rosy either. One day I edited a story about a police boss at Wandegeya who had mistreated his junior over something I can not remember vividly.
The junior’s name was kept anonymous. The following day after the story was out, the police boss came to the newsroom with an armed escort and was directed to my office. A pistol swung on his waist, held by a leather strap. The commander demanded to know the identity of the junior officer who had accused him. I explained to him why we could not disclose the name.
The commander would have none of this. He insisted I would have to tell him the name. I told him I could only reveal the name in court. This stalemate lasted up to about 20 minutes.
Realising the futility of his threats, he walked downstairs and left. Editors need to be brave not to yield at the slightest intimidation to expose their vulnerable, but valuable sources.
The March 2001 presidential election was another troubling moment of my career. I witnessed vote rigging of unexplainable proportions in Bihanga army barracks. When I returned to Kampala the following day, I wrote a story which was published.
That day, now UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, wife to Dr Kizza Besigye, who had contested against President Museveni, called me to inquire if I could testify on the contents of my story in court. I agreed. Dr Besigye was filing an election petition in the Supreme Court to nullify Museveni’s election for rigging. I swore the affidavit about the rigging I had witnessed in the barracks.
My editor, Obbo, was not aware. But when the hearing of the petition started in the Supreme Court, he read the verbatim which quoted my affidavit.
Obbo was angry. I had now returned from leave. He summoned me to his office and demanded to know why I had sworn the affidavit. I told him that Monitor stood for truth against injustice and vote stealing was one of such. So I had acted within values.
He went silent for about two minutes and asked me to go back to the newsroom. We have never talked about it again.
Politics and journalism sometimes are double-edged swords. Always be careful on which edge you touch.