26 May 2013

Uganda: MPs Condemn Closure of Red Pepper, Monitor

Internal Affairs Minister Hilary Onek was last week put on the spot by MPs, over the continued closure of Monitor and Red Pepper publications premises, which police has since declared "scenes of crime".

Busiro East MP Medard Sseggona first raised the matter on Tuesday; but junior Internal Affairs Minister James Baba had no answers, and the matter was referred to the following day. However, as the matter came up again on the floor on Wednesday, Onek appeared to receive a phone call and he moved out hastily.

With Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah calling for the ministerial statement on the saga, some ministers, notably Nyombi Thembo (State for ICT), paced up and down the corridors of Parliament but could not find Onek. Later, Onek returned to the House, after receiving copies of the statement, delivered by some police officers.

"The interest of the police and other sister agencies is to get the letter published by the Daily Monitor and, given its security classification, investigate how the Daily Monitor got it, and possible violations of the law that may have been committed, especially in respect of the Official Secrets Act and the UPDF Act," Onek told Parliament.

Although Onek read the statement, we have learnt that that he may have had no input in its crafting, since his ministry remained in the dark about the on-going search at the Daily Monitor and Red Pepper premises at Namuwongo and Namanve.

A source close to the minister told us that it was Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi who informed his political colleagues in Internal Affairs about the closure of the two newspapers and Dembe and Kfm radio stations.

"The search will go on until the letter and those other documents relating to the letter are found," Onek said.

Tainted image:

Apart from Buhweju MP Ephraim Biraaro, who asked Parliament to pass a resolution compelling the media houses to produce the "Sejusa" letter, other MPs condemned the siege on the media houses.

"I want to know whether government makes due consultations before taking up operations like this one," said Stephen Baka (NRM, Bukooli North). "Internationally, our image is tainted because it is making headlines on the international media. Tourists bound for Uganda are stopping in Nairobi, and our constituents are also living in fear."

Other legislators said the government had no right to compel a media house to reveal sources of its information, urging government to look at the fundamental issues that Gen Sejusa raised, instead of trying to gag the media.

"We should not go for the messenger; the author is there; he is an MP and a high-ranking officer of the UPDF. He has not denied the contents of the letter," said Benjamin Cadet (Independent, Bunyaruguru).

Kyankwanzi Woman MP Anna Maria Nankabirwa also weighed in: "I have not seen any complaint from him [Sejusa] that what they published is not what he told them. On what basis are the police acting?"

Nankabirwa also questioned how the police came to declare the media houses scenes of crime when Gen Sejusa was not an employee at any of the media houses: "Aren't you responsible for giving accountability for his whereabouts, because we know him as a high- profile army officer, an MP and a civil servant? Can government tell us where he is?"

Other MPs wondered why the government was stifling debate on the contents of the letter under the guise of protecting national security.

"The minister should tell this country that it has become unlawful to debate President Museveni's succession. Why has the state become so agitated that they are stifling debate on the matter?" said Mathias Mpuuga (Independent, Masaka municipality).

"They seem to be diverting us from something that could be cooking under there and take the house and the country unawares," said Julius Maganda (Samia Bugwe South).

Part of the requirements that the minister was asked to present before the House were the relevant documents with which the police moved to seal off the media houses. Indeed Onek produced a court order issued on May 16 by Rosemary Bareebe of Nakawa Chief Magistrate's court, requiring Daily Monitor to avail Gen Sejusa's original letter and its source. Onek also produced two search warrants issued by the same court on May 20, for Daily Monitor and Red Pepper premises.

With MPs demanding to know how Dembe and Kfm radio stations got to be closed without the involvement of the regulatory body - Uganda Communications Communication (UCC), Onek produced two letters signed by UCC Executive Director Godfrey Mutabazi, whose authenticity was questioned by the legislators.

"The two letters from UCC are themselves suspect, they were written today [Wednesday] but backdated because the minister was compelled to produce them before the House," said Francis Epatait (Ngora).

"They fall short of a reference of a meeting by the board, or an inquiry, and do not talk of temporary closure but seizure of operations," said Medard Sseggona (Busiro East).

Eventually, Sseggona moved a motion for the government to henceforth allow the media houses to operate again. But the motion was rejected by Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah because it could "put the institution of Parliament into disrepute."

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