3 February 2013

Uganda: Imaginary Foes Could Have Ruined Kadaga's Judgment

Former American President Thomas Jefferson suffered some of the most acerbic criticism of the press in his time.

He could have tweaked the constitution, or sponsored a law to censor the press coverage of his presidency. But when he was asked what he thought about a critical ? sometimes unjust ? press, he stunned his audience when he didn't harbour any grudges against the press.

He believed the citizens would be able to sift the truth from the lies. This is what he said: "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

The suspension of two Observer journalists from Parliament is very instructive. When the speaker finds herself in a situation which she didn't anticipate, she cries 'falsehood and inaccurate reporting.' But the presumed tolerance of criticism is lost when the sledgehammer comes slamming down on the reporters.

You have to give it to men like Jefferson, who had the monopoly of power to stifle their critics, but let restraint prevail. The reason for this draconian decision is that the two reporters, David Tash Lumu and Sulaiman Kakaire, committed the wanton sin of filing stories which contained falsehoods.

These falsehoods, according to Parliament's Public Relations Manager, Helen Kawesa, portrayed the two leaders, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, and Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah, in negative light and their standing in the public eye was affected. They are also accused of not crosschecking their stories with the two aggrieved persons.

The speaker wanted front-page retraction of a story and apology. But how does one retract a story when, after crosschecking the content, everything appears accurate? As The Observer grappled with this question, Parliament arbitrarily suspended the reporters. In fact, I am told that the earlier thinking was to ban The Observer altogether from covering Parliament. Thankfully, this was abandoned.

In the colonial days, any newspaper that printed news deemed to be prejudicial or corrosive to the public mind was either destroyed or the publishers were imprisoned and their commercial licence revoked. In modern days, the state and its agents have devised a more sanitized means of getting their way.

John Nagenda, the senior presidential adviser on Media and Public Relations, once told me that he was instrumental in 'exiling' former editor of The Monitor (now Daily Monitor), Charles Onyango-Obbo to Nairobi because he had become a pain in NRM's flesh.

He seemed to suggest that Agha Khan, the majority shareholder of Nation Media, the owners of Monitor Publications Ltd, had to choose between keeping Onyango-Obbo in Kampala and jeopardising his other business interests. The commercial prevailed. In a way, the speaker wishes to dictate who should be a reporter and probably editor in a private newspaper. Whosoever does not meet her standards will have to be fired!

The genesis of the stand-off is not really about enforcing standards of reporting about Parliament. Ironically, the guidelines for the media coverage of Parliament were only issued on January 29, 2013, a day after the journalists were suspended! The speaker believes her political foes have contracted The Observer to besmirch her.

She complains that the paper has an agenda against her and in favour of her opponents. Politicians are as paranoid as co-wives. Whatever calamity befalls a co-wife, it is attributed to the co-wife. It appears Kawesa and her boss constituted themselves into a tribunal, which was devoid of independence and impartiality, to decide their own cause.

The question is, if Kadaga had more powers, would we have any media freedom?

The author is the Business Development Director, The Observer Media Ltd.

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