Monitor’s march from small start-up to household name

The production manager, Mr Apollo Arinaitwe (left), and his team check the quality of a paper at the Monitor Publication Limited headquarters in Namuwongo Kampala. Photos / File

What you need to know:

  • Gory images of what in the country’s political parlance became known as “Luweero skulls”, a reference to victims killed in Luweero, the epicentre of the five-year guerilla war, underlined the brutality of citizen against citizen in pursuit of power.

Slightly over 30 years ago today, when Monitor Publications Ltd, publisher of the Daily Monitor newspaper was founded, Uganda’s national conscience was scarred by after-effects of the atrocious war between Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) government and the Yoweri Museveni-led National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels.

Gory images of what in the country’s political parlance became known as “Luweero skulls”, a reference to victims killed in Luweero, the epicentre of the five-year guerilla war, underlined the brutality of citizen against citizen in pursuit of power.

Then after shooting its way to power in 1986, the NRA/M through legal notice No 1 issued in March of that year restricted activities of political parties claiming that they were devisive.

The Museveni group was leftist-leaning, but soon turned to embrace neo-liberal policies, including imbibing hook-line-and-sinker economic liberalisation policies of the Bretton Woods institutions that birthed privatisation and downsizing of the civil service.

“This privatisation drive stinks badly,” The Monitor, the fresh kid on the media block, proclaimed in its July 24, 1992 edition in what three decades reveal to be arguably prophetic.

NRM in its early days held out as a liberal outfit; had restoration and promotion of democracy on its 10-point programme blueprint, which was supposed to be the cornerstone of governing Uganda. 

In that direction, its leaders gravitated towards espousing the rule of law and free speech and media which made it unsurprising that NRM liberalised the airwaves in the early 1990s, leading to the future proliferation of FM radio stations and other media outlets. 

Among the early publications before that was the Weekly Topic. It was led by three leftist adherents; former Ugandan Prime minister Kintu Musoke, former deputy premier, the late Kirunda Kivejinja, and former long-serving Local Government minister Jaberi Bidandi Ssali.

 But some of the Weekly Topic’s editors and reporters felt that the owners of the newspaper were joined at the hip with the government.

This editorial turmoil spilled into the newsroom.

 Mr Wafula Oguttu, a future Leader of Opposition in Parliament, was one of the editors at the Weekly Topic newspaper.

He reveals that there were attempts as early as 1988 to get rid of him.

“They [government] tried to banish me and take me out of the country. Museveni appointed me and Kintu Musoke [as ambassadors]. We both declined to be ambassadors,” he said in an interview for this article. 

According to Mr Wafula’s recollection, publication of sensitive stories precipitated a rift between the owners and editors of the newspaper.

“I had so many friends in the NRM and so it was very easy for me to get stories and break them. Sometimes they were stories in Cabinet, sometimes they would go back and change the headline,” he said, “the owners felt that if we broke stories, it would appear that they were leaking government secrets.” 

The newspaper then published a hard-hitting editorial on corruption. The editorial implored the president to make sweeping reforms and get rid of corrupt public officials including a minister corruptly linked to a power project. This editorial jolted the establishment.

“Apparently Museveni was very angry about that because we were lecturing him; so one afternoon, one of the founders came to the Weekly Topic and called a meeting for editorial and said that I had been promoted to the role of director for projects and was not allowed anywhere near the editorial. I felt this was a joke,” Mr Wafula said.

He added: “After the meeting, I found that I was going to develop sister magazines of the Weekly Topic, I decided that I was not going to be kicked upstairs to earn a salary for doing nothing. My friend Charles [Onyango Obbo] then was doing a fellowship at Harvard (University), I talked to (Teddy Ssezzi) Cheeye [and told him that] that ‘I think I want to start a newspaper to augment [others] and do it the way we were doing it at the Weekly Topic’.”

Mr Wafula had earlier on developed a blueprint to improve content at the Weekly Topic. This is what he polished to start The Monitor newspaper alongside colleagues Mr Obbo, Mr David Ouma Balikowa, Ogen Kevin Aliro, Richard Tebere and Mr Teddy-Sssezi Cheeye and Mr Jimmy Serugo.

He says the motivation to start The Monitor newspaper was not financial gain, but to have an independent editorial platform that would offer practical training skills to journalists.

“We did not start Monitor to make money; we wanted to satisfy our professional enthusiasm. We had brains, pens and a type-writer and we thought we would do a newspaper. What motivated us to found The Monitor was a place to be free to express ourselves, but we wanted that platform, which would train journalists,  some of us were already teaching at Makerere,” he said.

A cohort of the pioneer Mass Communication students at Makerere University who were doing internship at the Weekly Topic newspaper, abandoned the ship as it sailed across the rough seas.

Among them was Ms Susan Nsibirwa,  who is now a new non-executive director on the paper’s Board, Mr Onapito Ekomoloit, the legal and corporate affairs director at Nile Breweries Limited, Mr Linda Nabusayi Wamboka, the current senior presidential press secretary and Mr Dismas Nkunda, the executive director, Atrocities Watch Africa.

Eventually the Weekly Topic newspaper folded.

 Ms Nsibirwa described working at The Monitor in its early days as “humbling”.

“You walk in and if you didn’t have where to sit, basically you have to stand. It was just their desire for truth and pure journalism [that] kept driving us,” she said, underlining a dedication to hold leaders accountable. 

Her allegiance to the editors while a correspondent at the Weekly Topic aided her seamless transition with them to The Monitor.

 “We hand-wrote stories, the edited stories were typeset and then pasted into columns to form newspaper pages. All this was done manually,” Mr Onapito said, adding, “On the day the newspaper went to bed, ready for printing we reporters stayed in office until the wee hours to make sure everything was okay with the stories.”

The prospect of seeing one’s story in the newspaper the next day was exciting that, he said, one hardly noticed the night turn into day break in office.

Guests  inspect the printing machine during the opening of the Monitor Publications Limited head offices on 8th Street Industrial Area. 

As founders of the newspaper, according to Mr Wafula, they barely had any entrepreneurial rigour. 

They had nowhere to typeset the paper, but one gentleman named Alex then stationed at Blackline House helped the team out on his computer

With no cash at hand and no idea where to print the newspaper, Mr Wafula said he approached his friend William Pike, then editor of New Vision, which he had declined to edit, and implored him to print the index copy of The Monitor but they would pay later.

Mr John Ndyabagye, a friend Mr Wafula approached, offered a basement at a building on Entebbe Road, now renamed Kamu Kamu Plaza, as Monitor’s first office premises. 

“It was totally dark, and we had one desk and one sofa-set,” he said of the paper’s humble beginnings.

The publication initially was to be called The Flame, but Augustine Ruzindana, a friend to Mr Wafula, suggested The Monitor title.

Its first edition hit the stands on July 24, 1992. 

“That is where I met Robert Kabushenga [former Vision Group chief executive officer]. He was counting and loading the newspaper, I was the only one with a small Mazda (car) [in which] I loaded the newspapers and a BBC correspondent who had a Land Rover [helped] to carry the newspaper to the office from where we distributed the copies to vendors ...,” Mr Wafula said.

All the 10,000 copies printed were bought by 9am in Kampala.

“After we printed a number of the first, second, and third editions, New Vision realised that we were eating into their market … [and] one afternoon said [it was] not going to print our newspaper,” he said. 

Later, they approached an Ethiopian man who had a modest printer who agreed to print The Monitor.

“That is when I asked Kabushenga … I was impressed that a Law student was carrying newspapers and I put him in charge of printing the newspaper at the new printing press,” Mr Wafula recounts.

At its humble office, on Entebbe Road and later Dewinton Road in Kampala, The Monitor offered a distinguished provenance — bold reporting, which spoke truth to power. 

It also carried a rich tapestry; politics, features, satire, gender content and sports. 

The newspaper was able to look into its crystal balls and predict what was about to unfold.

The late Richard Tebere wrote, “privatisation has come to Uganda and in a big way. Government officials, with un-accustomed alacrity, are falling over each other to sell off over 100 public enterprises whose actual owners are the people of Uganda” in the editorialised lead for the maiden issue.

 The article added: “A few months ago, an advert was placed in European papers listing the number of Ugandan parastatals to be sold off to the private sector without the approval of the National Resistance Council [the then Parliament] or the Cabinet. On the face of it, it makes a lot of sense. For why should taxpayers continue to subsidise loss-making and corruption-riddled corporations?”

That prediction over the past three decades turned true.

Privatisation, which was a core policy of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund pushed Structural Adjustments Programme (SAP) became the poster-child of graft in Uganda as public parastatals were stripped of their assets by powerful individuals in government, which led to their collapse.

Among them was Uganda Airlines, which was recently revived after years of collapse, Uganda Railways Corporation and Uganda Commercial Bank ltd.

 In December 2020, the government closed the Privatisation Unit, which struggled to deliver the lofty dreams of efficiently-run blue-chip private firms anchored on private enterprise.

The founders of The Monitor newspaper identified themselves as egalitarians who were keen to show that beneath the veneer of liberation, the NRM and its leaders were not entirely squeaky clean.

 Barely six years after capturing power, the NRM attempted to dress itself in a puritanical image.

On the contrary, the stories that were published by the Monitor showed a corrupt elite at the steering wheel of a nearly chaotic state. 

The Monitor was then branded a radical platform to sustain the Opposition. 

A number of its journalists were often hauled before courts of law and detained on allegations of flouting draconian provisions such as sedition and the publication of false news.

Mr James Nangwala was a young astute lawyer whose profile was raising. Like a fitting glove, he became the company’s troubleshooter in the courts of law.

Finally in 1993, the hammer fell on The Monitor, as government imposed an advertising ban on the newspaper.

Mr Wafula recalls that the ban took effect immediately after The Monitor’s first anniversary. 

 “[Co-founder] Aliro, [then] a fan of Soccer Club Villa announced that The Monitor is going to celebrate one year at Crested Towers. The entire stadium came for the party and we had also bought cars for ourselves on credit and a car for office. It didn’t sit very well with government,” he said.

Those who crafted this ban believed that this would push the newspaper into a financial chokehold and collapse.

Mr Wafula said among the advocates of the ban was the the late Vice-President, Samson Kisekka who “began making speeches on radio saying ‘we might have gotten [two-time President Milton] Obote’s money’. I confronted him in his office”.

However, the public and foreign firms offered The Monitor newspaper the saving grace.

“Something happened which was interesting, the foreign companies began giving us adverts, the public demanded more copies and even some embassies began advertising, we survived the ban for four years,” Mr Wafula said.

On the contrary, sales grew and by November 1996, the paper went daily.

“Dr (Ruhakana) Rugunda [former Premier] came to visit me at The Monitor. I said ‘Dr Rugunda, you have come to visit me, an organisation you wanted to kill four years ago, we have refused to die, that’s why we are here, this building belongs to us, the machine belongs to us, and my staff hate you because you wanted to take their jobs away’. If you want to make peace with us, remove that ban.’ He laughed and eventually they removed the ban,” Mr Wafula added. The State ended the ban in 1997.

 In March 2000, it was announced that The Monitor had been bought by Nation Media Group (NMG), the largest media house in eastern and central Africa. In 2005, the newspaper was relaunched and renamed the Daily Monitor.

Mr Wangethi Mwangi, a former editorial director of NMG and current non-executive director and board member of the Group, said: “The main reason that we went there [to invest in MPL] was our own history here in Kenya. The Nation was set up on a platform of change or transformation— a platform that would provide an alternative voice to the majority population that was clamouring for self determination and then of course the Nation’s vision has always been to be the media of Afric for Africa. So, the best way to do that was to venture farther afield.” 

They found Monitor Publications the ideal bride.

In the deal, the founders of The Monitor looked at survivability amid a hostile environment. 

That has worked, according to Prof Samuel Sejjaaka, the new NMG Uganda board chairperson, who argues that the continued publication of the title is an “attestation to its quality as an alternativesource of news … [and] strong values as part of the fourth estate of this country and … ability of the founders to weather the storms”.

Guests at the opening of the Monitor Publications Limited head offices on 8th Street, Industrial Area. 

His relationship with the founders of The Monitor dated back to 1983. By then, Prof Sejjaaka, was an accounts clerk intern at the Weekly Topic. 

“For me to be here to be speaking about The Monitor means that I have come back full circle and it has been quite a rollercoaster,” he said.

That journey, for the newspaper and NMG, was- not without tumbles or jagged edges, as Mr Wangethi explained.

 “It has been a rough journey, but we have been vindicated, we have stumbled along the way, we have faced a lot of obstacles, journalists have been harassed some of them sent to jail, but we have always managed to get up and do the things we do best, thanks to the boys and girls at The Monitor,” he said, adding, “They have continued pushing the agenda of change and giving that very critical voice that always misses in democracies that are too tightly-controlled.”

Beyond surviving, The Monitor has thrived, as the circumstances have favoured. 

It managed to secure land and build its own headquarters, comprising a two-storey and a four-storey building, the latter housing both KFM and Dembe FM radios that it owns, on 8thstreet in Industrial area. It has its own modern printer and runs a Nation Courier Services fleet

It also has sister publications, The East African newspaper and NTV Uganda, under the NMG-Uganda stable.

Despite, the challenges afflicting legacy media, headlined by a drastic drop in conventional advertising models and technology, one commitment of The Monitor remains undiluted: bold and influential journalism.