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The triumph of press freedom

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The closure and reopening of Daily Monitor and Red Pepper exposed the weaknesses, not the strength, of the state

Finally, the government re-opened Daily Monitor and its affiliate radio stations KFM and Dembe on the one hand and the Red Pepper and her sister newspapers Kamunye and Hello Uganda on the other. For many observers, the closure of these newspapers was a blow to press freedom.

This is perhaps true for those concerned with short-term tactical maneuvers. Strategically, the closure of the two daily newspapers and government’s eventual withdraw was a triumph for the cause of a free press.

Since they captured power, President Yoweri Museveni personally and the NRM organisationally have simultaneously facilitated (for the most part) and occasionally suppressed press freedom in Uganda.

Museveni and NRM might have won many battles against individual newspapers and journalists but they will certainly lose the war against media freedom. This is because they can close individual newspapers and jail journalists but they can never imprison the idea of freedom of expression – because it lives in the hearts of many.

The foundation of a free press in Uganda is rooted in our nation’s history, from the colonial period to date. So press freedom enjoys a broad consensus in our country. This is not to say, as some commentators present it, that we have an angelic press and a devilish government. I have been in Uganda’s press long enough to know our professional weaknesses and to claim perfection in the media.

Nonetheless, press freedom enjoys greater legitimacy in Uganda than say in Rwanda where it was de-legitimised by the role media and journalists played in the genocide. This legitimacy is the ideological fortress rooted in our nation’s psych that NRM can occasionally assault but never destroy.

Added to this ideological fortress is the fact that Uganda has sustained rapid economic growth for 25 years largely because of a liberal macroeconomic framework. This has facilitated the growth of a large and diversified private sector which has grown in tandem with a large and increasingly more educated middleclass. Yet, although Museveni and NRM have been central to this progressive change, their political behavior has at times remained locked up in the 1980s.

Thus, where the private sector is increasingly attracting the best educated and skilled, the state in Uganda is largely, not entirely, still recruiting mediocre operatives with little sense of how to handle an increasingly sophisticated society in a changing global environment.

This failure was evident in the closure of the Monitor and Red Pepper. For instance, even if we assumed, just for argument’s sake, that government had legitimate grievances against these two media houses, could this justify their closure, albeit temporarily? Secondly, if these grievances were strong, were there no alternative ways to address them other than closing down newspapers? Did anyone in government ask these questions?

I know that Museveni made efforts to open and keep dialogue with the Managing Director of Monitor Publications, Alex Asiimwe, when the David Tinyefuza story broke. He telephoned him a couple of times to express his concerns and share views on the story – the last call being two days before police shut down the Monitor offices.

In all these calls, Museveni seemed understanding. Why did this effort collapse so suddenly? Who were the people within the state who tilted the balance away from the President’s initial approach? Was Museveni a long ranger in his camp?

I got involved in many informal discussions on opening both media houses. I was keen to identify people within government who felt the action was high handed or who, even if they had initially supported it, were open minded enough to listen to alternative views. I was pleased to find many willing and understanding ears.

The lesson I got from this experience is that there are many internal surrogates within the state who can facilitate the cause of media freedom. Therefore, the freedom of the press will be strengthened by battles with the state and dialogue with it.

All too often, the debate about anything in Uganda tends to get polarised around two poles. Those in government accuse their opponents of being subversives and terrorists and use the state to either beat them on the streets or throw then in jail.

Their opponents take a similar stance accusing those in government of being thieves (which they often are anyway) and of being bloodthirsty hounds who should be kicked out of office and killed or jailed. This is not the kind of discourse that builds a democracy.

Having been involved in public debates on democracy in Uganda for nearly 20 years now, I have become more realistic and therefore able to tolerate the delusions of our elites with more patience today than before. I now know that when given any small amount of power, human beings will try to use it arbitrarily – if there are no sanctions for doing so.

This is most pronounced on Facebook, Twitter and on The Independent website. There, Museveni critics have their day to prove their values. Their only weapon is a keyboard and access to internet; their damage is to people’s reputations. There, they indulge in character assassination without fear or restraint.

Clearly, if the same people commanded the police, as Museveni does, they would not hesitate to use it as arbitrarily as him. The difference between them and Museveni is not over values but position: he is in power and they are not. Clearly, when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

As reporters, editors and publishers, we also have power to publish stories which can inflict grievous harm on businesses, individuals, governments etc. Our professional ethics require us to be truthful and accurate, fair and balanced and to provide context. We often fail to uphold these ethics ourselves; and The Independent is a major culprit.

Yet these ethics are not enough. For example, should the only justification for publishing a story or a picture be that it is true and we have the evidence? My view is that if we are to publish a story, especially one that can harm a group, an organisation or endanger national security, it should NOT be justified ONLY by showing that it is true. We also need to show that there was also an overriding right of the public to know.

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