Mr Wafula Oguttu, Mr David Ouma Balikoowa and Jimmy Serugo. PHOTOS/ISAAC NEWTON KASAMANI

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Founders: Monitor was a gamble that worked and inspired others

What you need to know:

  • As Monitor Publications Ltd, publisher of Daily Monitor newspaper, marks its 30th anniversary, no notables are in pole position than the founders to articulate why they founded the publication, its impact and whether it has lived to its billings.
  • Our Senior Reporter, Isaac Mufumba, spoke to Monitor founding Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief, Mr Phillip Wafula Oguttu; Mr David Ouma Balikowa, a former editor; and, Mr Jimmy Serugo, ex-business director.

WAFULA OGUTTU

How does the state of journalism today compare to the state of journalism at the time you started the Monitor in 1992?
I am actually disappointed. During our time you could see famous journalists who did not work for money. They worked for the [passion and] profession. Journalism has been commercialised. Young journalists are in a hurry to make money and live like their friends in Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) who are paid a lot more. But journalism cannot give you that kind of money. So, journalists basically cut corners.

How did you achieve being professional and working for passion?
We let them know that we were training them and that the name they were making at the Monitor would open doors outside there. Beside, when we left Weekly Topic, apart from the desire to create a forum where people could talk freely and also do some business, we wanted to have high quality journalism and respect for journalists and journalism. 

So what do you think can be done to change the situation?
I think that ordinary people do not trust social media. They will first ask, ‘What has Monitor said? Or, what has New Vision said?’ before they share. I think the mainstream media should take advantage of that. It should be truthful, quick and also tell the story behind the story. People will then say, ‘okay, let us wait for details from Monitor’.

Former Monitor Staff (Left to right:) Isaiah Mwalye, David Ouma Balikoowa, Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, and Martin Okia. PHOTO/FILE

I think that media houses should get quality journalists and pay them well. They should also hire senior people. If you watch the [UK public broadcaster], British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), (America’s) Cable News Network (CNN) or Al Jazeera [of Qatar], you see older journalists. People want to see a face of a person who can do analysis for them.

How did you people manage to strike a balance between practising good  journalism and doing business?
We were just lucky that the euphoria we came with from  was to do with gagging. When the Secretary to Cabinet issued a circular barring ministries from advertising with us, an appreciative public which thought we were on their side, reacted by demanding for the paper and an appreciative business community gave us adverts.

How was it like to lead the group of very energetic young people with whom you formed The Monitor?
When we walked out of Weekly Topic because they wanted to gag us, there was no way I was going to gag them when they had come to have space and more so when some of them were owners. So, whereas I was the only [ruing] National Resistance Movement (NRM) person, my stand was always that any story would run if there was proof. I always told (President) Museveni and my friends in the NRM that, ‘my NRM credentials stop at the gate of the Monitor. Inside, I am a journalist par excellence’. 
You say that Mr Museveni had been a friend. You even used to have regular engagements with him as the press. 
Once in two months or six times a year, the editors would go to his home in Entebbe. We would put the cameras, pens and recorders away and just sit there with our brains. 

What happened along the way? Do you think the President changed fundamentally?
I don’t know whether he changed, but that is not the Museveni we knew in Dar es Salaam. I think he just became himself. His conduct changed significantly after the 1996 elections. I think he now felt that he was popular. He stopped being consultative. Before that he would go anywhere and meet elders.

Monitor chief sub-editor Ogen Kevin Aliro (Left, RIP) receives journalists in his office. PHOTO/FILE

They would tell him the truth. That is why he also used to consult us. We would tell him anything and he too would tell us things about his people.

Do you think things would have been different if government had listened to you on things like privatisation?
Privatisation went on in many countries at the time we were carrying it out here. The most remarkable was Peru. Peru created millions of jobs. It supported its people to ensure that their businesses did not collapse. Here [in Uganda] people went to loot the companies that had been allocated to them. They did not know how to proceed, or have capital to invest. Over 100 firms closed. We said that it stunk because it was never thought through.

How do you rate the Monitor’s contribution in nation building?
The Monitor did many fundamental stories which helped to steady government and also stand up for the ordinary person. We would criticise, but never criticised without offering a solution.

This photo taken on August 1, 2022 show the newspaper published to mark Daily Monitor's 30th anniversary. 

The Monitor gave everyone a platform for expressing themselves. It did not matter whether you were in or out of government. When Dr (Samsom) Kisseka was the Vice President, he labelled us ‘Obote’s people and an enemy newspaper’. But it was to The Monitor that he came to say how bad the government was when he was dropped. When [former deputy premier and Attorney General] Abubaker Kakyama Mayanja fell out of favour with Museveni, he came to my office to ask for help.

DAVID OUMA ALIKOOWA, POPULARLY CALLED DOB

 Who came up with the idea that you leave the Weekly Topic, and start a newspaper (The Monitor)?
I think the idea was mooted by Wafula Oguttu, Kevin Ogen Aliro, Richard Tebere, and James Serugo after we had left the Weekly Topic. 

What were the circumstances under which you left Weekly Topic?
The whole thing rallied around Wafula being removed from the day-to-day running of the newspaper. We had all been working as a team and anything that touched any of us touched all of us. We acted in solidarity.

What were the first days like? Who did what during the set up?
We had no specific roles on who did what, but there was no [jostling] about who took what position. We worked as a team. We were the reporters, the sub-editors and editors at the same time. I remember that the first lead story was written by Richard Tebere and the lead for the second issue was written by myself, but it was quite obvious that Wafula was in the leadership in terms of giving direction. It was after we acquired an office on Dewinton Road that we sat down to apportion roles and responsibilities.

What was the state of journalism at the time?
There were a few newspapers. I think there as a government newspaper that William Pike had just revived [as the New Vision].

There was Weekly Topic and Uganda Confidential, but the newspapers had very few pages. There wasn’t much to read.

And the level of professionalism?
There was only one training institute, the Uganda Management Institute (UMI), which was offering Diploma courses in journalism.

Left to Right: Charles Onyango-Obbo, Andrew Mwenda and Wafula Oguttu share a light moment in early 2000. PHOTO/FILE

Most of the people who were working in the media industry had not been to university. Most had not trained at all and had learnt on the job. I would say that compared to today, there could be some differences.

How did this group of diverse young, very energetic, highly opinionated people manage to blend and take The Monitor the far they took it?
I think we respected that we had very different opinions. What was important was that everybody had the opportunity to express their opinions. We also worked as a team anddefended the publication as a platform where diverse opinions could flourish.

If you were to start all over again, what do you think you would have done differently?
I think we would perhaps spend more time developing the business model to support the kind of journalism we had in mind. That would be in terms of planning how to get the resources and how to invest them. If we had paid more attention to putting in place a more robust business model, maybe we would have done even much better than we did.

There were raids and closures of Monitor by the government. How were you affected at a personal level?
By the time the [first] closure happened [in 2002], we were kind of hardened. We were used to being harassed, being abused and we knew that it was only a matter of time before that would happen. You woke up every morning expecting either an arrest, a raid or being taken to the police for questioning because of the kind of relationship that we had with the powers that be.

Officials at the Monitor head office in Namuwongo. PHOTO/FILE


When they first raided the place it was at around 7pm, I was the only senior editor at office. They started searching our offices and collected lots of documents and tapes. They put them on a desk in front of me and took photographs of me. I in the meantime kept telling the office-in-charge that, ‘Guys, can you finish what you are doing? This is a very difficult hour for us’. I did not know that they would later order us out and seal off the offices.

What did they find?
Up to now I cannot tell because we never received those things back, but most must have been business documents.

Looking back, besides the contribution to journalism how else do you think Monitor has contributed to nation building?
I think we helped the profession of journalism to get entrenched in the country especially by giving young graduates from Makerere University room for internship, giving them jobs and of course mentorship. Some of them left, but continue to make a difference wherever they went.

And beyond the journalism?
Many young people learnt from us. They learnt that it was quite possible for them to have a business start-up. People learnt that sometimes you can come together and go into the service industry without capital.

JIMMY SERUGO 

What was it like to start selling The Monitor newspaper?
We didn’t know much about the marketing side. When we produced the first newspaper, we realised that we did not know where to take it. We only remembered that a man called Jjengo was distributing for the Weekly Topic. 

The tape cutting ceremony that marked the opening of Monitor’s new office building. PHOTO/FILE

That is when we drove to the Uganda Cement Industries Limited building where he was based, but he could not distribute for us because he was a Weekly Topic sole agent. He would run into trouble with Weekly Topic [if he distributed The Monitor newspaper].

I went behind the building so that I could tap the same vendors. [Founding Managing Director Phillip] Wafula (Oguttu) stayed in the front to direct the vendors to the back where I was with the copies.First, I thought they would pay (us), but then they said we pay after selling.

Had you set up any kind of systems?
No. I had a notebook. So, I decided to record their names, where they sell from and the number of copies each was taking. That was in the hope that I would either follow them up, or that they would comeback. Most of them told lies. I ended up giving copies to people I could not trace.

How much did you lose?
About 30 percent. The good thing was that the product was an instant sale. When we came out the following Friday, they were interested in picking the product so they came back. That gave me the opportunity to collect. We were subsequently able to know who the agents were and how many vendors they controlled.

So, how do you set up systems?
We gathered information on news agents in Kampala and other parts of the country and where they were based. They too were interested in this newspaper that everyone was asking for. They came to us. By the third edition, we had started taking their orders.

How challenging was it?
I was learning on the job. I learnt that you needed to deliver the papers to the agents and leave a margin of profit which they would share with the vendors. Remember we were printing at New Vision. So, we were also benchmarking from the New Vision people who were quite friendly.

You talk of friendliness, how so?
Mr Wafula negotiated with William Pike (then New Vision managing director) and they gave us credit. The first few editions were printed under that arrangement. Other people also came in handy. Wafula’s friend, Mr John Ndyabagye, had an office at the same building where we were distributing the first edition from. In the morning when he came to open his office, he found us and said, ‘You people take this office’. That became our first office.

Where had you been operating?
Wafula used to have a shop called Apu on present-day Watoto Church Building on Bombo Road.That is where we were working from. We would write the stories on papers and rush them to Mr Alex Rutamirwa’s secretarial bureau at Blacklines House for typing and typesetting. We would go to New Vision with a designed product.

How about setting up the advertisement department?
It took time for the sales department to get sales people. We did not have much in terms of adverts when we were planning the first edition. People will not advertise in a product that they have never seen. However, [top Kampala businessman] Sudhir Ruparelia gave us a page 1 advert. Wafula approached him and he said, ‘I am just helping you people because I don’t know how your paper looks like, but I will give you adverts for a whole year’. 
He signed a contract for a whole year and paid us in advance.

Monitor Publications unveils a new press machine in 2011. PHOTO/FILE


Mr Augustine Ruzindana, [a future opposition leader], and British Airways also supported us. But we would define our targets depending on who Wafula knew.

How was it like to grow the department?
We grew slowly. It was an organic growth. We did not allow it to expand quickly. The problem was that the business was always undercapitalised, yet newspaper is a capital intensive business.

So when do you begin working on accounts and the payroll?
Henry Odia, who was a cashier at Weekly Topic, would come into office after his work and run for us a ledger in a huge black book. It was after Martin Enon came that we organised that into some formal accounting.

So, how and at what point in time do banks start looking at Monitor as an entity worth doing business with?

We started with zero, but by the end of the first year, we were a Shs500m company. Because money was coming in, it was easy to work with banks. For example, when we were opening the account with Nile Bank, we did not have to go to the bank premises. The bank came to us.

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