Monitor’s promise at 30 years

Left to Right: Then Monitor Publication Ltd legal officer Elvis Twenda, then Managing Editor Daniel Kalinaki, then News Editor Alex B. Atuhaire, and then Associate Editor for Business Fredrick Masiga listen to the company external lawyer James Nangwala at Jinja Road Police Station after Kalinaki was interrogated for allegedly publishing false documents in 2009. PHOTO | ISAAC KASAMANI

What you need to know:

The Monitor’s biggest contribution, arguably, is in staying alive not just to bear witness to the evolution of Uganda over the past 30 years, but to also give a voice to those who need it, including those who, in previous lives, did their utmost to try and kill the paper, writes Daniel K. Kalinaki

When I edited the Monitor newspaper between 2008 and 2013, I had, pinned to a board behind my desk, an article that Charles Onyango-Obbo had written in his ‘Ear to the ground’ column in the newspaper in October 2007.

In the article, Mr Onyango-Obbo argued that Monitor’s most important role, given the attacks it had suffered at the repressive hands of the state and its functionaries, was to stay alive. A Monitor that “says little and lives on is better than a Monitor that says much but gets shut down”, he wrote in the column.

These weren’t idle or random musings. COO, as most people called him, had returned from a fellowship at Harvard University in the United States a few weeks after the Monitor was founded in 1992 to become its managing editor. He had, over the years, become the paper’s intellectual North Star and the poster boy of the body blows that it would receive from the state. He was an expert witness, and his words were not to be taken too lightly.

Daily Monitor staff with then Managing Director, Mr Alex Asiimwe (centre), share a light moment in July 2014. This was during the 22nd anniversary of the newspaper’s founding. PHOTO | RACHEL MABALA

That article served as a constant reminder that the Monitor was an institution that had existed before me and – if I was able to temper my youthful enthusiasm and act with restraint and a calm head – would hopefully continue to do so after.

Editing is a crowded lonely job. The morning or afternoon conferences at which decisions are taken might be crowded and crammed with editors, but the ultimate decision is owned by a majority of one. Thus, every time I agonised over a decision with a delicate story, I re-read COO’s column and reminded myself of the weight of responsibility that small decisions carried. The Monitor was only useful if it was alive and could publish. Dead men, like dead newspapers, tell no tales.

At its founding in 1992 the Monitor was, in many ways, the right newspaper, in theright place, and at the right time. Much has been made of the paper’s fight for press freedom in Uganda, but it was not the first, or even the worst-affected as successive governments sought to control the public narrative.

Idi Amin, for instance, nationalised the Uganda Argus newspaper, turned it into the Voice of Uganda, and turned its staff over into civil servants in the Information ministry of which he just happened to be minister.

Even the slightest journalistic mistakes were swiftly punished. When Taifa Empya newspaper published a story attributing proposals in the budget to the Minister of Finance and not the whole government, the ministry forced its management to fire its editor. In 1974, Sammy Kateregga, the sports editor at Voice of Uganda, was fired for “unconstructive criticism” of the national football team.

Daily Monitor staff hold placards during a candlelight memorial for those who are suffering from or have died of HIV/Aids on Mukwano Road round-about on May 19, 2005. Monitor Publications staffers later donated blood to help the cause. PHOTO | JOSEPH KIGGUNDU

Yet, these were the lucky ones. Fr Clement Kiggundu, the editor of Munno newspaper, was burned alive in his car in 1973 after he published a resolution by the Uganda Women’s Council calling for an investigation into mysterious disappearances of citizens. In the same year, James Bwogi, a director at Uganda Television (UTV), the state broadcaster, was picked up during a school run and murdered. Earlier in July 1971, American journalist Nicholas Stroh and Robert Siedle, a sociologist and lecturer at Makerere University, were reported burned to ashes in Mbarara where they had gone to investigate alleged “massacre” at Simba Battalion of Uganda Army.  

Newspapers were routinely banned, journalists and editors arrested, disappeared or forced to flee into exile.

The coming to power of the National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) in 1986 was meant to be a “fundamental change”, in the words of its leader and then new Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and a return to stability, civilian rule, and the rule of law. 

It, too, had taken power through military means, but the leadership of the NRA was intellectual compared to the buffoonery of the Amin, Milton Obote, and Tito Okello Lutwa regimes. In an interview with a Danish documentary filmmaker at the time, Onyango-Obbo, then a senior editor at the Weekly Topic, and his boss Wafula Oguttu, were both encouraged about the new liberal order in Uganda.

In retrospect, the views were either naïve or optimistic. Within weeks of the new government taking over, Sully Ndiwalana Kiwanuka, editor of the Focus newspaper was arrested and charged with sedition. In June 1986, the Weekend Digest was banned for “concocting stories”. 

By the time President Museveni told a press conference in February 1987 that he was “putting journalists on notice that if they malign the good name of the NRM, they will be locked up under the detention laws,” it was clear that media freedom in Uganda would have to be fought for, even under the new government.

However, what was at stake was more than just media freedom. In an interview with the government-owned New Vision on February 28, 1992, President Museveni, then in his sixth unelected year in office, was asked if he had changed his views and now believed in multipartism.

“No, I haven’t changed my mind. In Africa there are tribes, and each tribe has its political party. I am not against multipartism, but I believe that, applied to pre-industrial societies, it is very dangerous. When an industrial society creates parties on a basis of well-being, I support multipartism. But not here and now.”

The over-arching argument was that the NRM would be one big church with minimal internal competition, in order not to divide society. Political parties were not banned, but their activities were severely and legally restrained. Elections could be held, but under the ‘Movement’ umbrella.

The journalists that founded the Monitor discovered, first hand, the contradictions of this arrangement. The owners of the Weekly Topic, at which they then worked, Bidandi Ssali, Kirunda Kivejinja and Kintu Musoke, were all ministers in the NRM government. To scrutinise the government, as newspapers generally tend to, the journalists had to directly criticise their bosses. Something had to give.

In September 1991, the Weekly Topic prepared a lead story on the decision by the Zambian government to amend its mandatory death sentence for murderers and give judges discretion on sentencing, based on the ‘social class’ of the convicted person.

Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda’s son, Kambarage, had shot and killed his lover, but justice was slow in coming to him. Three journalists, Hussein Abdi Hassan of the BBC Kiswahili Service, Festo Ebongu of the New Vision, and Alfred Okware of News desk magazine were already facing charges for questioning President Kaunda about the case (and for staying too long in power) during a visit to Kampala.

The Weekly Topic piece, ‘Zambia’s new murder laws for the rich’, claimed that the change of the law was to spare the life of Kaunda’s son. Under normalcircumstances, and given the response to the earlier questions, the article was bound to be provocative.

More urgently, President Kaunda was expected in Entebbe the following day for an ad hoc meeting of the Organisation of African Unity, whose revolving chair President Museveni held. Although the paper had already been printed, the owners pulled the entire print run, replaced the lead story with an anodyne story about elephants, and sent out the paper.

These run-ins between the journalists and the owners ultimately provided the former with the reason to leave and pursue a less fettered form of journalism. The environment of political transition within which Uganda found itself provided the meat and potatoes of that journalism and the topics on which to provide an alternative view.

Most of the newspapers that had existed up to that point had been somewhat aligned to specific interest groups, including The Citizen for the Democratic Party, Voice of Uganda and later New Vision for the government of the day. The Monitor was one of the more notable attempts to break with that tradition and speak for the people.

Throughout its existence the paper would face and push back claims that it represented the interests of Opposition parties, foreign interests, or just anti-government voices.

The Monitor’s 30 years of existence being celebrated this week, although the exact mark was July 24, 2022, can be broken down into three 10-year blocks. 

The first, from founding up to 2002, was notable for the coverage of the Constituent Assembly and the remaking of a new constitutional order. It was also remarkable for coverage of big regional stories, including the Rwanda invasion and genocide, the Congo War, and the insurgencies in north and eastern Uganda, especially the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). 

This period climaxed with the unprecedented rapture within the NRM that led to the first electoral contest between President Museveni and his former personal physician Dr Kizza Besigye in 2001, and ended with the closure of the newspaper in October 2002 over a story alleging an army helicopter went down in a fight with LRA rebels.

The next 10 years were of transition. Out went the founders, starting with Onyango-Obbo to Nation Media Group in Nairobi which had acquired the Monitor, followed by John Ogen Kevin Aliro who went to found the Weekly Observer.  

There had already been earlier departures of journalists to found The Crusader in 1996, and the Red Pepper around the turn of the millennium. By the time Conrad Nkutu replaced Wafula Oguttu as managing director in 2004 and changed the paper’s name to Daily Monitor, the institution had undergone major changes in personnel and culture.

This second period was about testing the constitutional arrangements developed in the nineties. Key journalistic moments included the amendment of the Constitution to remove term limits, which required the payment of bribes to MPs to do that which no one had asked for in the countrywide consultations. It also included the historic year – 2005 – in which decades happened in months: Obote died; Besigye returned, was arrested and charged with treason and rape; Black Mambas raided the High Court, et cetera.

It was also Monitor’s second closure, this time of KFM radio in 2005, although the delay in issuing an operating licence to NTV, a new sister TV station in 2006, is believed to have been punishment for the Monitor’s sins and coverage of the 2006 election.

This decade ended as dramatically as it had begun; with the Kayunga riots shaking the stability of the state in 2009, before the Walk-to-Work protests in 2011 then triggered the roll out of the kind of public restrictions similar to those seen in police states.

The last decade kicked off with yet another closure, in 2013, of the Monitor, over the ‘Sejusa letter’ in which the former coordinator of the intelligence services claimed there was an attempt to eliminate top government officials opposed to the alleged ‘Muhoozi Project’. 

Unsurprisingly, the succession question has continued to flavour the Monitor’s journalism in the last decade, including the reticent manner in which some of it has been covered. Having said a lot and been shut down, the Monitor continues to find ways to say what it needs to say while staying alive.

Monitor has many notable firsts, and contributions to the media industry in Uganda. It was the first to print in full colour in Uganda, and its website, which was the first ‘north of the Limpopo and south of the Sahara’ remains the biggest news website in Uganda since launch.

Monitor has also been a training and seeding ground for other media houses. The restlessness that its founders had in the Weekly Topic remains part of the paper’s culture and dynamic. Monitor’s loss, of experience and institutional memory, is the industry’s gain. 

The other much-celebrated contribution, apart from paying taxes and creating employment, is helping change the country’s jurisprudence, including the striking down of the laws against sedition and the publication of false news.

But Monitor’s biggest contribution, arguably, is in staying alive not just to bear witness to the evolution of Uganda over the past 30 years, but to also give a voice to those who need it, including those who, in previous lives, did their utmost to try and kill the paper.

As prime minister and then vice president, the late Samson Kisekka was a rabid critic of the paper. When he was fired, his first stop was at Monitor, to give his side of the story. When former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya was fighting to keep his sanity in government – long before there were visible public signs of any strife – it was to Monitor that he turned to reveal the existence of what he claimed was a “mafia” controlling the government. The Monitor has defied the high infant mortality  of Uganda’s independent newspaper industry. That, in many ways, is Monitor’s place in Uganda. The founding editors are all gone, and many editors have come and gone, but the Monitor remains an ever-present platform for speaking truth to power.

Yet the Monitor will need a lot of the passion and enthusiasm that have brought it this far, and new ways of thinking if it is to survive another 30 years. Social media has devalued and commoditised news, at the expense of traditional media platforms.

The Monitor, together with NTV, enjoy the biggest digital audiences in the country. The challenge for the current and next generation of editors is to maintain and deepen the trust that Ugandans have in the institution and give them trusted, credible information they are willing to pay for in a world of free alternatives.

The Monitor has done it before, in the mid-nineties when, after a government advertising ban, it relied on reader revenue to meet its bills. As it faces forward to the next 30 years, the Monitor will have to learn important lessons from the past and never forget that it works for Uganda, and Ugandans. 

At Monitor’s main reception at the office in Namuwongo, visitors are greeted by black-and-white portraits of all the country’s heads of state since independence. The idea, which came from Wafula Oguttu, is poignant.

Writing 10 years ago when Monitor turned 20, Onyango-Obbo explained the lesson in the photographs: “That we need to embrace our history, with its beautiful, ugly and painful episodes, if we were ever truly to know who we were.”

In many years to come, more photos will be added to the gallery, and then more, and more. The Monitor’s biggest challenge is to remain alive, and relevant, and continue to tell stories about the country and the journey by Ugandans to find and understand themselves.