Monitor siege and future of independent media in Uganda

 Two weeks after I had been named acting managing editor of Daily Monitor, the police raided the newspaper, turning off the press and bringing all activities to a halt. The siege went on for 11 days. On the seventh day, the Mail & Guardian of South Africa asked me to write a piece, reflecting on what the events meant for journalism but also explaining what had really happened. The piece was published on Friday, May 31. Below is the piece

 

Eighth Street in Kampala’s Industriciid picsal Area is deserted. Seven days ago, this was another busy street in the heart of the capital’s industrial hub. On a normal day, the noise from Monitor Publications Limited printing press would rend the air and the street would be a hub of activity as hundreds of the newspaper’s staff paced in and out of the premises. This would be punctuated with the hooting of the fast-moving boda bodas (motorcycles) as they rushed to pick and deliver their passengers.

But this is not a normal day. In fact, it is the eighth “abnormal” day. Monitor Publications Limited (MPL) is a shell of its usual self. Instead of the sea of workers, tens of policemen, armed to the teeth, some with tear gas and anti-riot gear are spread across the newspaper’s premises. A yellow tape around the front of the building marks it out as a scene of crime. The doors are locked. No one is allowed near the premises.

It all began on May 7th. On that day, Daily Monitor, the flagship newspaper of MPL, published contents of a letter written by Uganda’s top intelligence boss, Gen David Sejusa, directing one of the country’s intelligence arms to investigate claims that top government officials opposed to the idea of President Yoweri Museveni’s son, Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, succeeding his father had been marked out for possible elimination.

The succeeding days saw a flurry of reactions from the government, most criticising Gen Sejusa, now holed up in London, of seeking to foment dissent in the army and trying to launch his own presidential bid by sucking the President’s son into the succession debate.

Gen Sejusa is no stranger to controversy. In 1996, after commanding the war in the north of the country against the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, where he was accused of running a scotched earth policy, he told a parliamentary committee that the Ugandan army lacked the will to end the war. He also accused his colleagues of corruption.

The regime ordered that he be court-martialed. The general opted to retire from the army—a wish that was rejected. He challenged the decision in the High Court, which ruled in his favour before the State appealed and won in the Supreme Court.

 Instead of being punished, he struck a deal with the government, underwent “rehabilitation”, before emerging in 2005 to command an operation that saw opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who was returning from exile in South Africa, brutally arrested. When the courts granted Mr Besigye and others accused of treason bail, the same Gen Sejusa led an operation where commandos surrounded the courts and forcefully re-arrested the suspects.

For Daily Monitor this new drama had just begun. Three days after publishing contents of the General’s letter, the newspaper received summons from the police. They wanted to interrogate me (the managing editor), and the two journalists (Richard Wanambwa & Risdel Kasasira) who authored the story. The police asked for a copy of the letter and demanded that we reveal its source. Citing ethical obligations to protect sources, we rejected the demand. For three days, the we appeared at the seat of the Criminal Investigations Directorate, where the same demand was repeated. We stood our ground.

Making no headway, the police sought a court order compelling us to produce the document. Our lawyer filed an objection but before it could be heard by the judge, the police on Monday 20th, turned up with a warrant to search the premises for the letter and other documents. They cordoned off the newspaper premises, shut down its printing press and switched off two radio stations affiliated to the newspaper.

Despite the newspaper’s lawyers being able to have court cancel the search warrant and ask police to vacate MPL premises, the police stay put. It is the eighth day of the siege now. The newspaper has not been able to print and the radios are off air.

To keep its journalists engaged and readers abreast, the newspaper has moved most of its operations online. A skeleton newsroom ensures big news events are captured on the newspaper’s website, http://www.monitor.co.ug, the most-visited news website in Uganda.

For now, the newspaper’s future remains foggy. For most staff, end of month is three days away. Despite management’s assurance that they will be paid their salaries, some are worried about their job security. MPL’s managing director, Mr Alex Asiimwe, estimates that the newspaper is losing Ushs120 million (about US$45,000) daily in circulation and advertising revenue.

The biggest loss, however, may not be monetary. It is the freedom of expression and press that are under severe test. Daily Monitor is no stranger to run-ins with the state. In 2002, it was shut down for 10 days after it ran a story about a military helicopter being brought down by the LRA rebels. In 2005, KFM, a radio affiliated to Daily Monitor, was switched off air, following a talk-show themed on the death of then South Sudan leader.

The state has also severally dragged the newspaper’s editors to court whenever it has published stories deemed critical of the regime. As the leading independent newspaper in Uganda, Daily Monitor has without doubt taken blows for its stance. What remains to be seen is how deep the scar of this latest assault will be on not just Daily Monitor but free speech, expression and media in Uganda.

(Note: A day before this article was published, Thursday May, 29th, the government lifted the siege on Daily Monitor and Red Pepper. The newspapers are now back on the stands)