By P. Matsiko wa Mucoori
Over the last twenty years, President Yoweri Museveni has baffled observers with his relations with the Ugandan media. He has simultaneously been the strongest promoter of press freedom and its biggest threat. He has jailed and prosecuted as many journalists as he has dined with.
He has contributed to the creation of an atmosphere of free expression and also contributed to the one of fear, intimidation and self censorship that now pervades Ugandan media.
He has participated in as many radio talk-shows as he has worked hard to kill. He was central in the liberalisation of the media and equally central in closing down radio stations that did not agree with him.
President Museveni was the man who made William Pike Editor in Chief of New Vision, defended the paperâ€™s editorial independence. Yet he was also the one who fired Pike for his independent editorial stance and refused him audience to say bye before he left New Vision.
President Museveni used to have good relations with The Monitorâ€™s founding Editor in Chief Wafula Oguttu, calling him to talk on phone regularly. He was equally involved in undermining The Monitor, chairing a cabinet meeting that imposed a five-year government advertising ban on the paper.Â
When Conrad Nkutu became Managing Director of The Monitor, Museveni created a good relationship with him although he had supported Nkutuâ€™s forced exit from New Vision where he had been Corporation Secretary. Although he used to talk to Nkutu regularly as Monitor MD, Museveni was also personally involved in his forced removal from the paper.
Onapito Ekomoloit was a major critic of Museveni as a journalist as was Tamale Mirundi. Yet he later appointed them as his press secretaries.
Museveni helped finance the Uganda Confidential newspaper and defended and protected it from many of his ministers when it fairly or unfairly reported on their misdeeds. But he stood by as Uganda Confidentialâ€™s editor Teddy Sseezi Cheeye was jailed severally and finally bankrupted by the courts.
Museveni has also had many run-ins with The Independentâ€™s Managing Editor, Andrew Mwenda. They have had friendly talks as many times as he has ordered the police to arrest and jail Mwenda. They have met as many times as the number of criminal summons and charges Mwenda has been subjected to.
The examples of this contradictory relationship are many. But what do they tell us ultimately?
In the early years of President Museveniâ€™s NRM in power, he was never bothered by critical media reports including cartoons that satirised him.
He was confident of survival in state power because he enjoyed overwhelming political support. There was unprecedented press freedom unseen in the previous regimes. Museveni and NRM were so tolerant to press freedom that even despite banning political parties and effectively turning Uganda into a one-party state, the international community heaped praises on him as â€œa new breed of African leaders.â€Â
The first serious challenge to his presidency struck in 1996 from DP chief Paul Ssemogerere who grabbed 24% of the vote. It means the opposition represented a quarter of the voting population. With this growing opposition, Museveni no longer felt as secure as before and the tolerance in him cracked. Anxiety set in and press freedom gave way to press repression. By 1997 cases of press repression had emerged.
In October 1997 The Monitorâ€™s EditorÂ Onyango- Obbo and then Senior Reporter Andrew Mwenda were arrested for â€œpublishing false newsâ€ that then DR Congo president Laurent Kabila had paid Uganda for her support in toppling Mobutuâ€™s regime. The following day police summoned The Crusader editor, Onapito Ekomoloit, over another story that a renegade called Kafeero had thrown bombs in the city. Museveni also ordered the arrest of anotherÂ journalist Mulindwa Muwonge working with CBS for allegedly encouraging or supporting the tradersâ€™ strike over VAT.
The trend has become the norm; the more the opposition the less the press freedom.
What began as isolated cases has now translated into widespread and nearly systematic crackdown on the independent journalists.
In the September 10-12, 2009 riots that rocked Kampala after the state blocked the Kabaka from visiting Kayunga, many journalists in the private media were suspended, banned from practising their profession or taken to court or both. They include: Kalundi Serumaga (Radio One); Peter Kibazo (Radio Simba and WBS TV); Peter Ndawula and Charles Ssenkubuge (Radio Simba); Charles Odongtho (Uganda Radio Network and host on Vision Voice); Mark Walungama (UBC); Aloysius Matovu, Irene Kisekka and Ben Mutebi (Radio Sapientia); Moses Kasibante (CBS) and Basajjamivule Nsolonkambwe (Kaboozi Ku Bbiri).
Â With the opposition against Museveni at 42% by 2006 and probably higher today, freedom of the press will get narrower as the country heads closer to 2011 electoral showdown. Despite the harassment, however, Museveni remains a favourite of all Ugandan media. They will write about him, draw him in cartoon, and use his sound-bites.
Therefore, it would be a mistake to assume Museveniâ€™s love-hate relationship cannot or wonâ€™t be rekindled.