The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Monitor, Red Pepper Talks With Govt Deadlocked

When a government minister outlined the stringent terms for the reopening of Daily Monitor, many thought the shutdown of the publication and its two radios--Dembe and Kfm - and the Red Pepper was about to be lifted.

But reliable sources say the light at the end of the tunnel has begun to dim. The latest indication of this frustration came in the form of a message from Monitor Publications Managing Director Alex Asiimwe to all staff.

"Dear enablers [reference to monitor staff], just to update you that we continue to engage the authorities at all levels. There are indications that this could be over soon, but we are also preparing for the long haul," Alex Asiimwe's text to staff stated.

The Observer reported on Monday that outgoing Internal Affairs Minister Hilary Onek set tough conditions for Monitor Publications managers if the paper was to reopen. The paper would have to sign an undertaking never to write negative stories about the army, the president or his family. But the managers, who claim that high-level meetings with government officials are still ongoing, refused to agree to the terms.

"Nothing has changed," Asiimwe told us yesterday.

Confirming that he sent the telephone messages to staff, Asiimwe told us that he wanted to prepare the workers for any possibilities that may come.

"But we are aligned to any possibilities that may come; so, I told them that they might be going for the long haul to make them ready for both scenarios," he said.

Asked how far they had gone with the consultations, Asiimwe said: "I hope that the engagement we are involved in will lead us to what we are looking for." "The indication that it could end soon is there, but we don't know when. Even if you ask me now if it will end today or tomorrow, I don't know."

Red Pepper's fate:

The situation is not any better for The Red Pepper, despite, managers said, discussions with Gen Kale Kayihura, the inspector general of police.

"They [police] finished the search on Monday, but they told us that they could not allow us in unless they got orders from the authorities," said News Editor Ben Byarabaha.

Journalists protest:

As the two papers fight for their survival, the journalism fraternity is lending them its support. Led by Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebagala, the Coordinator of the indefatigable Human Rights Network for Journalists -Uganda (HRNJ), the journalists yesterday walked to Namuwongo carrying a cross and bark cloth to symbolize their grief at the closure of the media houses on May 13.

After the march, the journalists had several run-ins with police. Police fired tear gas canisters to break the journalists' protest.

"We decided to join our fellow journalists who are jobless; their children are not in school, they are earning nothing. We are in solidarity with them. The demonstration is going to continue until they leave this place; they are here illegally, we want them to go away and let the jobless work," Wokulira said.

The campaign was dubbed 'Walk and camp at Namuwongo to save the media'.

Three of the organizers - Wokulira, Mulindwa Mukasa and William Ntege, were arrested. Later in the evening, Wokulira was released, but by press time, the others were being held in separate cells.

Widespread condemnation:

Meanwhile, several local and international human rights organizations have condemned the media clampdown. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Human Rights Watch, African Liberal Network (ALN), East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP), Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), and Amnesty International were some of the organizations that spoke out about what they see as intimidation of journalists.

"Police should resolve the legal disputes before the courts without resorting to abusive tactics to scare journalists away from politically-sensitive stories," said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Additional reporting by Prisca Baike.

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