The Monitor newspaper and its proverbial nine lives

The Founding Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief, Mr Wafula Oguttu, (left) and Mr Charles Onyango Obbo (centre), consult lawyers at Buganda Road Court. Photo / File

What you need to know:

  • Despite the threats, its reporters were not frightened to confront the establishment through their unfettered brand of journalism.
  • Beyond reporting on governance, politics and security, the newspaper offered rich content.

Thirty years after The Monitor published its first edition in July, 1992; it has outlived an advertising ban, two closures and the desire of government to have the newspaper in its grip.

Despite the threats, its reporters were not frightened to confront the establishment through their unfettered brand of journalism.

Beyond reporting on governance, politics and security, the newspaper offered rich content.

“In 2001, I wrote a story on the 20 years of HIV/Aids in Uganda. That story won me a CNN award as the best African Health reporter. In a way that award changed my life, especially the way people saw me as a journalist, and the award also opened many windows for me,” reveals Carolyne Nakazibwe, who won Uganda’s first-ever CNN continental award.

Today she is a director at The Observer newspaper.

“There is a tendency for business journalism to be more elitist, you are looking at business leaders. People who have made major wins in the economic spheres and policy makers. How I wish business reporters could try and adopt the voice of the people who do not have a lot of economic power and interrogate these elites in business from the point of the people who have the least economic power in society,” argues Teresa Nannozi, who is a former Business Editor at The Monitor newspaper.

“If they could speak to voices that do not have money, do not have power to change things and help them to change things. However, to do that, journalists need to get out of the boardrooms and press conferences at the Ministry of Finance and stop interviewing CEOs and go the field, to the people.”

Reporters at the newspaper mined history, pored over the details of classified information, spoke to sleuths and gleaned information from the cloistered halls of power where the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) High Command and Cabinet held its meetings.

Mr Wafula Oguttu, one of the founders, who later joined elective politics and rose to the coveted position of Leader of Opposition in Parliament, recalls a confrontation with the President after the newspaper published a leaked document.

“Museveni called the High Command, he was very enthusiastic about the proposals of the son [Muhoozi Kainerugaba] to reform the army so he gave it to the High Command, but as soon as that meeting ended, we got a copy. Museveni had written in the corner here instructing the soldiers to implement. So he knew it was true but he was angry, he was very angry, who of the soldiers leaked it, he [President] calls [Andrew] Mwenda, Mwenda goes there and he is asking Mwenda, where did this story come from? And he says Waf [Wafula] has got the copy. I think I was a bit reckless,”  he recalls.

Lt Gen Kainerugaba, who is currently the Commander of the Land Forces, had briefly returned to the country in 1999 from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the UK to undertake research when the High Command meeting was held.

Barely after it published its first edition, government immediately put the newspaper on notice.

The first edition

Its first edition carried the headline titled: ‘This Privitisation thing stinks’. However, Mr Oguttu recalls that it was the story on Obote that piqued the establishment.

Written by one of its founders, Ogen Kevin Alliro, the story revealed: Milton Obote ‘gains weight.’

The story read, “Contrary to recent press reports that fallen Uganda dictator Milton Obote had ‘dis-appeared he is reported to be healthy and happy in Lusaka, Zambia where he fled into exile in 1985.”

“Obote is being treated rather well by the Chiluba government of the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), according to our political source in the Zambian capital,” it read further.

Mr Oguttu says the government relied on the Obote trope to spread false theories about the funding of the newspaper.

One of the newspaper’s fiercest critics was the late Vice President, Samson Kisekka. He often claimed on radio that The Monitor newspaper had received a financial war-chest from Obote.

Six years after the end of the Luweero bush-war, the mention of Obote’s name elicited a welter of suspicion and antipathy in the greater Buganda region.

The rulers of the day, who were left-leaning overlords sought to be portrayed in a saintly image.

It was not a surprise that barely after its first anniversary, government banned advertising with The Monitor newspaper, which was lifted in 1997.

Government often engaged in smoke and mirrors to deliberately mislead the newspaper – it also deployed spies at the newspaper, as it was eager to knock the newspaper off its stride.

The Founding Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief, Mr Wafula Oguttu, (left) and Mr Charles Onyango Obbo (centre), consult lawyers at Buganda Road Court. Photo / File

However, the editors enforced tight gate-keeping rigours to deal with such editorial lapses and false leads.

Sensitive stories

In 1993, The Monitor covered some sensitive stories, including the killing of two West Africans by ESO intelligence agents near Kibimba Rice Scheme and the covert plot that led to the assassination of rebel leader Amon Bazira in Kenya.

However, some of the young and ambitious reporters led by the current Nile Breweries Legal and Corporate Affairs Director, Onapito Ekomoloit, revolted in 1995.

“At my work place both at The Monitor and Makerere University, I picked from where I had left before going to America.  The founders of The Monitor were neo-socialist critics of government excesses and espoused egalitarianism. They were idols to us their first graduate reporters from the Mass Communication School at Makerere University. Two of them Charles Onyango Obbo and David Ouma Balikoowa had been our lecturers, we enjoyed a great spirit of free-wheeling and camaraderie with them, we worked hard even though the pay was meagre.”

Onapito adds: “We felt like owners and the newspaper was taking baby-steps. By the time I returned from the US, the paper’s circulation had grown and the money was flowing in. The founders couldn’t hide it; they bought land and a fleet of saloon cars for themselves. I found sub editors and reporters who were from the Mass Communication class at Makerere restive over pay. I was seen as the group’s natural leader. Meanwhile in the editorial meetings there was also tension over challenges to the views of the founders and our senior editors,” Onapito read from a manuscript of his autobiography he plans to print later this year.

About 10 journalists departed to start The Crusader newspaper in 1995, which offered stellar journalism until it folded in 1999. Some of its journalists like Peter Mwesige and Simogerere Kyazze returned to edit The Monitor newspaper.

In 1997, the newspaper’s reporter, Mwenda, quoting the Indian Ocean newsletter reported that then DR Congo President Laurent Kabila paid Uganda’s army in gold for helping oust the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko.

On September 29, 1998, Mwenda reported that a plane carrying UPDF officers had gone missing in DRC.

At the time the plane went missing, Uganda had been sucked into an intractable conflict in the neighbouring DRC involving eight African countries.

Quoting “a well-placed military source,” Mwenda wrote that Col [Jet] Mwebaze had been one of the military officers in the missing plane, which was also transporting officials of a rebel alliance fighting to overthrow the government of Kabila.

Mwebaze, a maverick officer was the brother to the late, Maj Gen James Kazini, the former army commander who was killed in Namuwongo, a suburb on the outskirts of Kampala, on November 10, 2009.

The chartered Kenyan-registered Cessna aircraft (5YANV), according to the military source, had departed Entebbe for Bunia in the Ituri Province of DRC on Friday, September 25, 1998. It had not been heard from since.

Then State minister for Defence and former deputy Chief Justice Steven Kavuma, rebuked the newspaper for publishing ‘lies.’

In an interview with Uganda-born American journalist and Voice of America senior editor Shaka Ssali, who retired in 2021, Kavuma apologised for providing false information when he claimed that all the passengers aboard the plane had been rescued.

A week after they were last seen, reports they could have survived the crash emerged.

Again quoting a “highly-placed military source”, Daily Monitor reported on October 2, 1998, that the pilot, Enos Luwunzu, had died in the process of crash-landing after failing to clear the mountain ranges.

The survivors were Idi Taban (Congolese), Abuki and Ms Rosette Kirungi who had parted ways with six others, including Lt Col Mwebaze, when they disagreed on the direction to take.

The death of Lt Col Mwebaze was officially confirmed in a statement by the Defence ministry on October 4, 1998.

Stories that caused risk

On October 10, 2002, The Monitor newspaper reported that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels had shot down a UPDF chopper in Pader.

Security personnel raided the newspaper and temporarily shut it.

On September 28, 2003, Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, who is the Kira Municipality MP and Linda Nabusayi, the outgoing Senior Presidential Press Secretary, published a story after the President’s daughter, Natasha Karugire, flew to Germany to give birth on the presidential jet, a trip which cost millions of shillings in a country with an ailing health-care system.

The story elicited rebuke from the president who wrote a missive published in both the New Vision and Daily Monitor newspapers.

Mr Museveni opined: “…the new myth being spun by Awori, [The] Monitor, Onyango Obbo and their allies about an expensive life–style by my family is not only nonsense but it also shows the desperation of those who have been fighting the Movement for all these years.”

Mr Museveni disputed the Shs180m figure. According to his calculations, it would cost $26,000, not $90,000, to fly from Uganda to Germany.

He said he paid for Ms Karugire’s accommodation and hospital expenses. But he did not say how much he spent.

As to why the daughter was flown to Germany, Mr Museveni said this was premised on safety reasons.

Ms Karugire had delivered her first child at Kololo Hospital in Kampala.

“Why couldn’t she do the same with the second? It is safer to, once in a while use a completely different approach,” the President argued.

“The story became controversial, I think two days later Museveni was quarrelling. The following Sunday he writes in both Sunday Monitor and Sunday Vision abusing Wafula. We did the story when Wafula was not even in the country, abused Onyango-Obbo he had not even looked at it’s content, abused Aggrey Awori [former ICT Mister] who was making comments, of course me I was unknown. He never attacked the author of the story,” Ssemujju revealed.

Former Monitor staff (left to right:) David Ouma Balikoowa, Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, and Martin Okia.  Photo / File

Mr Emmanuel Gyezaho, who is currently the Press and Information officer at the European Union Delegation to Uganda, recalls writing an article, ‘which exposed a very peculiar idea to ring-fence political positions for elective leadership in the Bunyoro area. There was a conflict between the natives and some guys [people] who had come from outside. Where I sourced it, they [government] were curious how did you [Gyezaho] get this letter?’

Security personnel again raided the newspaper and shut it down after it published a headline on May 6, 2013 titled: Probe assassination claims, says Tinyefuza.

‘‘A senior member of the security forces has asked Internal Security Organisation (ISO) to investigate claims that top officials, including the chief of police, may have plotted to either assassinate, or frame colleagues,’’ read part of the story.

A member of the inner circle of Bush War comrades who fought alongside President Museveni between 1981-85, Gen David Sejusa, alias Tinyefuza, warns that “these are very serious allegations with potential to destabilise the country”.

Gen Sejusa writes: “Indeed intelligence has picked some clandestine actions by this reckless and rather naïve actors to have some youth recruited as rebels and then frame some members of security services and key politicians perceived as anti-establishment. The ‘Muhoozi project’ he refers to is an alleged grand, though unspoken plan, to have Kainerugaba, replace his father as President.”

The newspaper journalists were often hauled before courts of law and changed with draconian provisions like sedition and the publication of false news.

Mr Ssemujju said: “There was a guy called Bakiiza who was a CID director. He used to put a pistol on his table. One time I was doing a story in The Monitor and I called [Henry] Tumukunde [former Security Minister]. He had arrested Muslims in Kampala.  And he says you man do you know what it means to be Chief of Military Intelligence? I can disappear you and nobody is going to ask me because I am in charge of government security, so those threats remained but as journalists it’s a job you have assigned yourself, take the risk.”

Gyezaho says it was a badge of honour to be arrested.

“At the time to get summoned by the police and be formally charged in a court of law over an article you had written, for us it was like a fine moment, if people had not been reading your articles until that point, you are now going to be part of the news itself. People are going to be curious. Why has this journalist been arrested? The state at the time assumed, it was a tactic to intimidate, threaten reputable journalists.”

Challenging the law

James Nangwala alongside Andrew Mwenda and one of its founders, Charles Onyango Obbo has through public interest litigation challenged provisions such as sedition and the publication of false news.

In 2004, the Supreme Court found that the prosecution and the law on false news were inconsistent with the Constitution, and therefore, declared the provision on false news in the Penal Code Act null and void.

Nangwala says: “Like for example the jurisprudence that developed out of the constitutional petitions, it involved very heavy research. At one time we had to be aided by experts from the University of Toronto who flew here and we had meetings to discuss how the presentation of the case had to take place.”

Writing in his column: titled: “Monitor at 30: It will die with Uganda’s deepest secrets,” Obbo postulates that: “The anniversary reminded me that while, over the years, the story of The Monitor has been told, the “real deep” stuff that we will probably take to the grave with us. They are secrets that might never be shared. If the country knew how many ministers stepped out of a Cabinet meeting, or senior UPDF officers who took advantage of a bathroom break to leak the proceedings of an ongoing High Command meeting that was being chaired by President Museveni, it would be shocked to the bone.”

Prominent stories

Mr Wafula Oguttu reveals that some of the prominent stories they covered included the conflict in the neighbouring DRC.

“I think we did the best stories on Kisangani. Kisangani one and Kisangani two. We had a journalist from Canada [Murray Oliver]. He was the first head of KFM. We sent him to Congo and he was in Kisangani the day Uganda and Rwanda fought. He came back and said he had counted 270 bodies of our soldiers. That Canadian told me, it affected him because he saw so many dead bodies, sometimes journalism is not good,” Mr Oguttu recalls.

Among other impactful stories, the newspaper in 1993 exposed an attempt by the Ugandan government to purchase more than 400 anti-tank missiles.

The deputy Principal Private Secretary to the President, Capt Innocent Bisangwa, along with Uganda’s ambassador to the United States, Stephen Katenta-Apuuli, two former Egyptian army officers, an American woman and a Turkish-American citizen were arrested by the US FBI in Orlando, Florida in connection to the deal.

Earlier on, a Uganda Airlines Boeing 707, with arms from Zagreb in the then Yugoslavia, was seized in 1991.

This Uganda Airlines saga ostensibly meant to provide military support to the RPF rebels fighting Juvenal Habyarimana’s government in Kigali, which was burbling below the surface came to the radar, exposing the murky side of government.