31 January 2013

Uganda: Kadaga Makes Museveni Seem a Media 'Ally'


Kahinda Otafiire, the minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, is one guy in the government whose humor is unrivalled.

At the climax of last year's elections for EALA MPs and the fallout amongst opposition over the few available slots, some shadow ministers were sacked by Nandala Mafabi, the Opposition leader. Then, I met Otafiire and he called me aside and gave me a Runyankore proverb which he laughed at and translated for me: "You don't pass wind when you are angry", because doing so can cause bigger problems.

The decision by Parliament to throw out two Observer journalists from Parliament, over a story that was deemed "full of inaccuracies", was taken in anger and without much thought and consultation. In a two-page letter dated January 28, 2013, Hellen Kawesa, the PR manager of Parliament, told Richard Kavuma, the Observer editor, that his reporters at Parliament, Sulaiman Kakaire and Tash Lumu, would not be allowed to cover Parliament because they had written stories that were inaccurate.

I approached Kawesa in her office and candidly asked her why she had taken such a hard stance. She told me that the speaker was "very angry" with the reporters because she had not had any meeting with her deputy to talk him into signing the letter rejecting the petition to recall Parliament. I asked Kawesa whether The Observer newspaper had refused to give Kadaga or Parliament the professional right of reply to balance the story complained about.

Her response was that the speaker had refused to do that, preferring that the newspaper writes a front page story of its own withdrawing the "offending" story. I found that rather un-journalistic and unfair, because it is the practice world over, that when you are offended by a story and you don't want to go to court, you write a rebuttal to put the record straight and leave it to the public to judge what is right.

I have laboured to explain to some media colleagues in Parliament ? staff and non-staff ? that this discussion is not about whether or not the article by The Observer was wrong or right, but about the free environment within which the media should operate in this country.

John Stuart Mill, a 19th century philosopher, appreciated the media dilemma when he said: "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and even if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still."

Because of Parliament's reaction, we are going back to discussing what kind of leaders we have around Museveni who can be trusted as future presidents, with the ability to tolerate dissent and opposition, even amidst the toughest of controversies and moments.

As a journalist, I now find myself asking: if the speaker, the third in national hierarchy, with no executive powers yet, can get "angry" and take such high-handed decisions, what action wouldn't she take if she were to replace the son of Kaguta in the highest office in the land? Why can't she write back, if she feels her story was inaccurately represented, just like President Museveni sometimes does?

What would happen if every time Museveni was angry with the writing of a journalist, he took a rash decision like this?

Truth be told, I know not of any other politician who has been loved, and actually elevated to the top by the media, like Kadaga. The media, especially the journalists who write from and about Parliament, have fallen in love with her for the manner in which she has taken on the fight against corruption, giving a better name to the 9th Parliament than the 8th and 7th.

Of course it is very unfortunate that at a time like this, when many think Museveni has outlived his usefulness and age is fast catching up with him, a time when we should be discussing alternatives to him, we are forced by circumstances to instead compare his actions with that of new blood like Kadaga. It is a disappointment and sad for the future of this country.

Our leaders need to develop thick skins; they need to nurture the spirit of tolerance and humility and understanding and need to appreciate the challenges that come with leadership. Democracy is facing a real threat if we don't take Otafiire's humorous lessons seriously.

The author is a journalist and political commentator.

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