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Lies and blackmail undermining democracy

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The lack of basic values as the basis of politics in Uganda is the source of our country’s constant state of crisis.

“It is not easy to stand apart from mass hysteria, to argue against something that everyone – especially the most respected political leaders, academics and experts are saying and instead argue that they are mistaken or deluded.” Leo Tolstoy, 1897

Last week, public debate in Uganda was consumed by revelations that two ministers had received bribes worth US$30m from Tullow. The Youth Member of Parliament for Western region, Gerald Karuhanga, presented documents before the house purporting to be evidence of the bribes. Since then, most journalists and commentators have accepted them as true even without establishing their validity. In the process, attention has been diverted from the more substantive debate on how to force government to make public contracts it has signed with oil companies.

I am almost 99 percent sure that these documents are forgeries. I am also 70 percent convinced (based on about 30 percent evidence) that an international oil company actually paid bribes to some Ugandan officials and then forged these documents to divert attention and even investigations from itself to Tullow; but also to discredit Tullow so that its licenses and contracts with government of Uganda are not renewed. Parliament has directly fallen into its trap.

I was perhaps the first person to receive these documents. Initially I thought they are authentic; whoever forged them did a good Italian job. However, as a journalist I know that sources of information are not always neutral. All too often, they have interests to advance or to protect. The journalist always has to keep this at the back of their mind so that you are not used by individuals and groups to serve their interests – like destroying the reputation of rivals in business or politics.

In a country like Uganda where accusations of bribery of politicians and journalists are widespread, the most important quality a journalist needs is integrity. For example, in covering any story, a journalist should be impartial i.e. should not take a partisan side although he/she may take a value-based position. However, impartiality is like beauty in the eyes of the beholder. Each time you do a story you receive letters and telephone calls from your audience – some saying you were impartial, others you were biased or malicious or even bribed.

Therefore, impartiality is actually your integrity i.e. that you have a clear conscience and try to be as impartial as possible. Journalism is a public duty that interacts with many variables. The government wants to control you, the opposition to own you and the public (although it is never univocal) wants you to pander to their sentiments. If you stand firmly for your independence, you will constantly find yourself at conflict with each of these interested parties at different times; one day you are praised by the public, reviled by government. Another day you may be condemned by the opposition or the public but hailed by the government.

The lesson is that each interested party will only be happy with you if you publish information or arguments that serve their interest or agree with their biases, not necessarily because you publish the truths. Thus, you can publish false allegations that hurt someone, especially a public official that a section of the public hates, and you will be praised as a hero; the temptation to do this is so strong, resisting it requires a lot of integrity. Or you may write a story that is true but goes against the biases of a loud section of your audience and they will denounce you as a sell-out.

Journalists and editors therefore have to be value-driven and to uphold the principles of our profession; to be truthful and accurate and to be fair and balanced. Yet it is very difficult to uphold these values because you have to constantly fight your personal biases and desires from determining the way you report news.

For example, like many people in the public, I harbour a personal bias against a rich and powerful minister like Sam Kutesa, suspecting him of being corrupt. When I got these documents, they fed directly into my bias; the temptation to publish them immediately and expose him for what I suspect he is was very strong indeed. The Independent would have sold tens of thousands of copies, our reputation as a platform that exposes corruption would have soared and we would have been hailed as heroes who finally got concrete evidence that pinned this all-powerful minister.

It is difficult to resist this temptation. But it is right to resist it. I had to put myself in Kutesa’s shoes, a lesson I learnt from my lecturer at Makerere, Lee Dambert and ask: Suppose what I have is false information and it was me against whom it was being published; how would I feel? I tried to used private investigators, sent the documents to Nation Media Group in Nairobi and Global Witness in London and asked both that we do a joint investigation. I also took them to President Yoweri Museveni to have the state involved in the investigations to establish their validity.

I know that Kutesa has spent many years accusing me personally and Ugandan journalism generally of profiteering from selling falsehoods and deliberately damaging people’s reputations. On the few occasions I have talked to him, he has openly accused me and journalists generally of this profiteering. I hope that now he has learnt from this experience that there are journalists who are committed to serving the truth.

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