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How Monitor was closed, re-opened

By Independent Investigations

The Inside Story

On Friday May 10, the Managing Director of Monitor Publications Limited, Alex Asiimwe, received an unusual phone call. The operator of the State House telephone switchboard told him President Yoweri Museveni wanted to talk to him. Can you hold the line? the operator asked.

Yes, Asiimwe answered wondering what was amiss. This was his first telephone call from the President since he had been appointed MD at Monitor eleven months earlier. Soon Museveni was on line.

On May 7, Daily Monitor had published a story about a letter authored by Gen. David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza in which the Coordinator of Intelligence Services alleged that there was a plot by Museveni to make his son Brig. Muhoozi Keinerugaba, succeed him to the presidency.

Tinyefuza had also alleged that Muhoozi, backed by the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura and Museveni’s brother, Gen. Salim Saleh, had hatched a plan to kill top government and military officials opposed to the so-called “Muhoozi Project”. These included Sejusa, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and then-Chief of Defense Forces, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima.

Museveni, sources say, told Asiimwe that Daily Monitor was sensationalising the story. However, he said, the government wanted responsible reporting. If there is anything the state does, including arresting Sejusa when he returns, they would be willing to share it with the press. This was not the last call.

Throughout the coverage of the “Sejusa Saga” which was soon to actually transform into a “Monitor-Red Pepper Saga”, Museveni kept in touch each time giving assurances of dialogue and Daily Monitor bending backwards to accommodate his concerns.

Indeed, on Saturday May 18, management stopped the printing of a four page special report on Muhozi and the succession debate if only to show goodwill that the president’s telephones were not in vain.

The last call to Asiimwe from the President was on Saturday May 18. The police attacked and laid siege of the paper on Monday May 20.

Why did communication with Museveni collapse as suddenly as his telephone calls had come? Were the President’s telephone calls a red-herring to distract Daily Monitor as the state plotted its own move? It is difficult to tell although such a possibility is less likely. What seems to have happened, sources inside intelligence say, is that some people convinced the President that Monitor had an agenda to use this saga to undermine national security.

On the morning of Monday May 20, the Inspector General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura, the commander of the Special Forces, Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba who is Museveni’s son, then-chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, the Chief of Military Intelligence, Brig. Charles Bakahumura, the head of the Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Directorate (CIID), Assistant Inspector General of Police Grace Akullo, and her deputy, Godfrey Musana met in the office of the IGP to make final plans on how to handle Daily Monitor and Red Pepper.

Some of the plans had been hatched by Muhoozi and Kayihura the previous day. Musana was instructed to move against both papers and, using the pretext of a search warrant, enter their premises and close them down. What was the government’s plan? Apparently, the government had a precedent which had furnished it with lessons on how to use a crisis to launch an intelligence gathering operation.

The `Monisaga’

On the evening of October 10, 2002, police raided the offices of The Monitor along 8th Street Industrial Area. In one large-scale operation, they sealed off all entries and exits into the building; asked reporters, editors and other staff to vacate the premises with only their mobile phones and stayed in the premises for 10 days. The Monitor (now Daily Monitor) had published a story that rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony had shot down a Uganda Peoples’ Defense (UPDF) helicopter.

The day the story was published, the Managing Editor Charles Onyango-Obbo had smelt a rat. During Independence Day celebrations the previous day, President Yoweri Museveni had attacked Monitor accusing it of being an enemy newspaper.

During that morning’s editorial meeting, Obbo complained about the headline. Although the headline said “UPDF chopper goes down in fight”, the story itself was speculative and not confirming that a helicopter had actually been shot down. “Then we should have put a question mark on the headline, present it as a question rather than a statement of fact,” Obbo said during the editorial meeting. The headline, Obbo reasoned, should have been: “Did LRA shoot down a UPDF chopper?”

The problem, however, is that while doctors burry their mistakes, journalists publish theirs. Once a mistake is published, editors and publishers can only apologize and correct it after the fact but still the damage would be done. And for that fateful day of October 10, 2002, the government did not give Monitor any warning. Their raid on the offices of Uganda’s only independent daily at the time was swift and unprecedented. It lasted 10 days during which police, supported by the CMI, collected any document of value and downloaded all email exchanges between editors and reporters at the newspaper.

For most commentators at the time, the story was in the siege of Monitor offices but not what followed. For the government, it was the intelligence bounty they picked from the thousands of documents at Monitor. There were bank statements of Museveni’s two accounts in Nile Bank – Tailored One and Tailored Two – both in dollar and shillings. There were leaked minutes of cabinet and UPDF High Command meetings which Monitor had never published. Later after the siege and in a 52 page document titled “The Monisaga” – the codename for the operation against Monitor, CMI was able to build a picture of the internal organisation of the newspaper and its external allies (in the opposition, the government and the diplomatic services) from the mountain of documents that were confiscated.

The document, signed on November 11, 2002 claims that: “In its entirety, Monitor’s data contains negative criticism of government and subversive acts like targeting intelligence or security organisations for infiltration and thereafter publishing intelligence information in the mass media. They have like the en’s [for enemy] and oppo’s [for opposition] Intelligence Agency in the making.” The document then goes on to reveal the motive of the operation: “It is high time we embarked on fighting their calculated move to destroy the NRM revolution by building on some of the exaggerated individual mistakes turning them into institutional blunders.”

In the emails were hot exchanges among editors (especially Obbo and then managing director Wafula Oguttu) and reporters and editors on editorial policy. The document recommended that such differences among the editors and their reporters should be exploited by the state to sow seeds of discord and divide the paper. By accentuating internal divisions, the analysis by CMI recommended, the state can easily cripple the ability of Monitor to sustain its “damaging campaign” against the NRM. A decade later, many of the actors at Monitor around that time had quit. However, the paper had retained most of its internal independence even if it bordered on being hostile to the government.

New strategy

Thus, to understand the recent siege of Monitor and Red Pepper offices for 11 days in May 2013, one has to look at the lessons of the 2002 raid on Monitor as contained in The Monisaga. This document shows that by occupying newspapers offices, intelligence organizations are able to access rich intelligence on the cheap. Newspapers often get information from inside intelligence services, the army, police, government ministries, State House and President’s Office. By accessing the files of media houses, the state could investigate backwards to the source of leakage – unless the media house was cautious.

This insight, contained in The Monisaga of 2002 gives important insight as to why government was willing to risk its own image and that of the country to keep in those offices for almost two weeks. It also shades light on why the state occupied offices of the Red Pepper, which unlike Monitor, is understood and seen by many in the state to be “a friendly force.” For even from the Red Pepper, security could have has picked large quantities of documents and emails revealing who in the intelligence services leaks information to them and for what purpose. As things stand, we could see heads roll in security agencies.

Based on inside information from within intelligence services, the closure of the newspapers was only the visible aspect of this operation. The underlying aim was to find an excuse to take them by surprise, occupy their offices for purposes of collecting intelligence.

Indeed, sources inside intelligence now say that although the timing of the occupation was wrong, the siege itself has given them vital insights into how Monitor is run and the different “ideological fights” within the organisation regarding its editorial policy. Most of this information is from email exchanges among Monitor staff in Kampala; and some is emails between Monitor head office in Kampala and the headquarters of its parent company, Nation Media Group in Nairobi.

In a large mountain of intelligence collected, security services were both surprised and shocked that a debate had been ragging inside Monitor between the Managing Director, Alex Asiimwe, and outgone Managing Editor, Daniel Kalinaki. Asiimwe believed that the way Monitor was covering stories was too slanted in favour of the opposition, thus undermining the newspaper’s clearly stated objective of being independent. In the tens of email exchanges, Asiimwe was criticising Kalinaki of turning the newspaper – not just into an anti-government platform but actually the mouthpiece of the opposition, most especially of Kizza Besigye.

“Had we known this, that Monitor’s own managers without prompting from the state shared our feeling that the paper was an opposition mouthpiece, we would not have invaded it,” a top security source who is overseeing the analysis of the emails told The Independent, “However, if we had not invaded the premises of the paper, we would never have known this as well. Therefore, from a security perspective, our fundamental weakness was to act without sufficient information. Once we learnt that there was an internal debate within the organisation about these issues, our attitude changed.”

According to security officials involved, it was these emails that change the state’s strategy on how to proceed with Monitor.

In the early days of the siege when police occupied the newspaper premises, formal discussions were opened under the chairmanship of then minister of internal affairs, Hillary Onek. During these negotiations, government put forth a series of demands for Monitor before it could reopen. Monitor was required to sign a formal undertaking that it would fire reporters the state would object to; promise it would never run stories about security organisations or the army without approval from the state, unequivocally promise not to run anti government propaganda, reduce the content covering the opposition, and accept being closed without notice if government felt that these conditions have been violated.

There was no way Monitor was going to sign such a death sentence. However, government was determined to wear it down as a business if only to extract the highest concessions possible. In a May 24 meeting attended by among others the Inspector General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura and the commander of the Special Forces Command (SFC), Brig. Muhoozi Keinerugaba, this issue of a formal agreement between Monitor and government was discussed. Some people felt the agreement was one-sided, asking Monitor to make undertakings that take away its independence as a newspaper.

Besides, some in the meeting argued, such agreement cannot be enforced in a court of law since no one can legally sign away their rights. A person can borrow money and sign an agreement that if they don’t pay back, they should have their left hand cut off or their daughter killed. No court can uphold such an agreement. If Monitor failed to honor whatever terms it had agreed with the government, even if the terms were legally enforceable, the arbitrator cannot be courts of law as that would take long to get. Therefore, any failure to honor its obligations would lead to another closure.

These debates were still going back and forth between different leaders from the army, the security services and the police when intelligence reported the findings from emails within Monitor in Kampala and emails between Monitor and Nation in Nairobi. In the emails, copies of which The Independent has seen, Nation’s top executives in Nairobi were concerned that the paper lacks the necessary editorial distance from partisan differences in Kampala and is actually too biased against government and in favour of the opposition generally but FDC, especially the person of Besigye, specifically.

In Kampala, heated exchanges between Asiimwe and Kalinaki with the former accusing the latter of eroding the paper’s independence in service to opposition sentiments provided considerable grist to the intelligence mill. These exchanges had led to the recruitment of an expatriate executive editor, Simon Freeman, whom Nation got from London. Indeed, in one of the emails, Nation CEO Linus Gitahi says that what most impressed him about Freeman was that upon reading copies of Daily Monitor availed him before the interview; he said it was too political and biased against government.

The desire to be independent or at least to be seen to be independent was not new at Monitor. In one of the emails from Nairobi to Asiimwe immediately after he was appointed MD was information that NMG had hired David Sepuya as Executive Editor in order to protect the paper’s editorial independence from slipping away into a mouthpiece of the opposition. However, in other emails between Kampala and Nairobi, the two sides felt Sepuya was not asserting himself in the editorial department, a factor that allowed Kalinaki and other reporters and editors at Monitor to pursue an openly partisan editorial stance that was putting strains on the relationship with Nation.

Thus, as Asiimwe settled in the job, emails show, he took on a more assertive role insisting the paper lives to its editorial guidelines. The emails show that Asimwe, like his bosses in Nairobi felt that the problem was Kalinaki. And since Sepuya was not controlling him, Nation felt he should leave first and they begin a search for a new executive editor whom they can use to rein in Kalinaki. It is then that Freeman was interviewed and hired. It seems that upon arrival, Freeman sought to assert his influence on the paper and this brought him unto a collision cause with Kalinaki. The resolution of this conflict saw Kalinaki transferred to Nairobi – just less than a month before government intervened to lay siege of the newspaper.

Armed with these internal struggles, the government moved first to withdraw from its siege of Monitor. It also withdrew its demands that Monitor signs a formal undertaking with five draconian conditions. It was instead agreed that Monitor undertakes to uphold its editorial ethics and policies. For the Red Pepper, there were not many demands as what the state really wanted was to access its archives for intelligence purposes. The demands and conditions set forth were only an excuse to justify this openly blatant abuse of the role of security services in searching premises using a court warrant.

What all this portends to the press is yet to be fully appreciated. While the general public has focused debate on the closure of these media houses, the real danger is government using such search warrants to obtain information which journalists cannot reveal. Media organisations have sources in high and low places in government that provide them information on the understanding that they will not be exposed. Many of these people risk their lives, their careers and those of their family members to provide such information which is often clearly necessary for stopping many ills in government. It is a mark of such integrity that government has not compromised Ugandan journalists to reveal their sources. This has led to the evolution of a new state strategy, of using search warrants to access this information within media houses journalists and editors would otherwise have refused to divulge.

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