The factors and combinations that make that newspaper survive, flourish and promote democratic freedom
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | This week, Monitor Publications Limited celebrated its 30th Birthday. Daily Monitor (the newspaper) and its affiliate radio station, KFM, are the ground on which my teeth as a journalist were cut. In it, I thrived and grew. What I am today was greatly shaped by my life and work at Monitor and the support I got from its founders.
Monitor has also made a great contribution to building and molding our nation. First, it has been the training ground of many of Uganda’s finest journalists. Second, its most enduring contribution has been to help expand the frontiers of freedom.
But first, a biography. I was an S6 student at Busoga College Mwiri in 1992. I had read about the attempts to muzzle top editors at Weekly Topic, which had been a newspaper of my choice because of its independence. In rebellion, Weekly Topic’s editors decided to launch a new newspaper.
On July 29th, when the first issue of The Monitor came out, I was in Kampala, having come from school for treatment. I bought the first issue of the paper to read it and most importantly to express solidarity with the editors who had taken this bold step.
In this sense therefore, I can say I joined Monitor on the first day it was published. My first story in Monitor was published in January 1994. From thence henceforth, I became a member of the Monitor family and have stayed so since.
In pursuit of the ideals its founders sought, Monitor has demonstrated extraordinary resilience. That is why it is important to retrace its steps if only to avoid a romantic yet distorted idealisation of its work, its role and its history. I do this because the tectonic plates on which Uganda’s politics sits have shifted in a direction the founders of Monitor neither sought nor intended. But it is also meant to caution many at the paper today who may seek to take it towards a direction that does not foster further democratic development.
Monitor was a product of the NRM revolution. The top leadership of Monitor were friends or comrades of the top leadership of the NRM. When I joined Monitor, Wafula Oguttu, the founding Editor in Chief would speak regularly to President Yoweri Museveni. His second in command, Charles Onyango-Obbo, was close to the top leadership of NRM and so was Kevin Aliro. These relationships spread all the way from the executive to the legislature to the leadership of the army and the intelligence services.
Perhaps because of these associations and relationships, the founders of Monitor had pro-NRM leanings. They sought to use the paper to hold NRM leaders to account, if only to ensure they do not betray the ideals of the revolution that had brought them to power.
However, managing the state sometimes dictated that NRM leaders employ strategies or take actions that violated the revolution’s ideals. There, Monitor would check them, if only to remind them of the ideals for which they had fought. Naturally, those in power would sometimes get angry and hit back at Monitor.
Therefore, there was incessant conflict between the two sides which on some occasions would get nasty. But these conflicts were often tactical, not strategic.
As Charles Onyango-Obbo has written in his Ear to the Ground column, some of the fights were over stories that had been leaked to us by NRM insiders, who sought to use an external party to stop internal abuse. This was especially when internal mechanism of resolving a particular matter had failed. Therefore, the quarrels between Monitor and the state were akin to those between spouses within a marriage. And they were often resolved through internal negotiations and compromises.
Monitor therefore survived not only because NRM tolerated it but also because it greatly benefited from it. NRM wanted to appear democratic. Having a newspaper that constantly irritated it was necessary to keep demonstrating its democratic credentials. I actually think that if there was no conflict with Monitor, government would have invented one if only to keep the appearance of democracy. But Monitor benefited too as it was able to expose wrongs inside the state and call public attention to them.
Therefore, the relationship between Monitor and the NRM government including its security establishment was subtle, complex and all too often complicated. Top leaders in the government and security system, including Museveni personally, were often sources of the most critical leaks which formed the basis of many of our breaking stories and investigative reports.
In times of conflict between top government officials and top Monitor editors, this density of friendships and relationships acted as channels of communication between the two sides. Internal to the government, they acted as shock absorbers and brakes. Inside Monitor, they acted as intelligence and sources of caution.
It is in this complex context of what we can call “embedded autonomy” that Monitor not only survived but also thrived. And it was because of this relationship that Monitor became an important pilar in expanding the frontiers of freedom and liberty and thereby helped nurture our fragile democracy.
Ignorant of this complex history, neophytes of today think that democracy evolves as a confrontation between state and media. Yet Monitor’s example demonstrates that democratic growth demands the existence of relationships and networks of trust that foster dialogue and understanding.
There were moments when the disagreement between Monitor and the state would be over a matter of principle making the resolution of the difference a matter of strategic choice. Here, Monitor would seek redress from the courts. But the judges in our courts had been appointed by Museveni. In seeking judicial protection, we were expressing our faith in the independence of the judiciary which can only exist within a state willing to respect it. The courts do not control armies and police to enforce their judgements and rulings. They depend on a cooperative executive.
Therefore, if we won in court against the state, we expected Museveni, armed with an army, police, prisons and intelligence agencies to respect the verdict. If Monitor lived under the government of Gen. Idi Amin, I do not think we would have sought protection of the courts – because it was not possible.
Again, reality is more complex than I present here. There have been moments when Museveni has disregarded the courts and sent hooligans to invade them. But these moments have been the rare exception, not the rule. Overall, his government has demonstrated remarkable respect for judicial independence, within the limits of what reality can permit.