6 March 2018

Uganda: The Dark Side of Ssezi Cheeye's Journalism


So said Marc Antony in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar... "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones; so let it be with Caesar."

So let it be with the late Teddy Ssezi Cheeye, killed by a runaway mysterious motorcycle.

Years ago, it was quite an experience reading Uganda Confidential, a newspaper that prodded almost everyone; bluntly exposing corruption in the NRM government and many of its officials plus their dealings. Cheeye tested the boundaries and pushed the envelope almost single handedly.

Cheeye became a big hit so much so that many attribute whatever freedoms Ugandan journalism enjoys to date to him personally because his paper was basically a one man's show.

Confidential overshadowed the contribution of crusading publications that came before like the Weekly Topic and The Shariat. Then there was Weekly Digest and Financial Times of Francis Odida, which were closed by the NRM government shortly after it took power. They all pushed but died in the struggle.

Confidential came on the scene in 1990 at a time when the spots of the NRM government were becoming visible. The 1986 promise of handing over power after four years was already broken. Old habits like nepotism and corruption were rearing their ugly heads. Privatisation and structural adjustment policies were shaking the social economic status quo. People were losing jobs and government houses. Free health care and university education was coming to an end.

Ugandans were now looking at every move by government with keen interest. Cheeye's exposes were helpful in this endeavour for they focused mainly on corruption and governance issues in the NRM government. Confidential was a consistent publication unlike others which were short-lived. It was also edited by an authentic 'westerner;' a kinsman of the ruling class, who could not be dismissed as a 'jealous outsider.' On his passing, this side of his journalism was highlighted and correctly so as Cheeye liked to say. But for the sake of history, it is important to put in context Cheeye's contribution and what followed thereafter.

Cheeye was no ordinary Ugandan who folded his sleeves and decided to take on the government. He was for all intents and purposes part of the NRM set up and it was right in their stable that he met his waterloo.

His rise re-enforced a treacherous type of journalism. You could call it 'state inspired journalism,' where an individual or a group of individuals is quietly ensconced and safeguarded by the powers that be and embedded within the media.

They are a quasi part of the subterfuge of government, which fortification makes many think they are dare devils.

Their 'protection' grants them licence to publish often without the burden of validation, about anyone or anything without fear of repercussions. Their main purpose in the long-run is to ensure the perpetuation of their godfather, the government in power, which is never blamed directly for all the woes that may be happening in the country.

Their publications dangle red herrings to create media agendas that deflect public attention and criticism from the government. Many times, this power gets to their heads and they go overboard fighting on many fronts, especially those they deem enemies of the government. They become hired guns, blackmailing and taking money to kill stories. Once in a while, they wander into a sacred realm, biting the very hand that fed them to this position, ending up in trouble.

Ugandan journalism today has so many of these types called 'investigative journalists' with personalised 'impeccable sources', who position themselves as mouth pieces of people in government, politics and business; giving them good coverage and staining their enemies or those who they fail to blackmail - for a fee.

Cheeye was one of this kind. In the 2001 election when it became clear that Dr Kizza Besigye was a contender and not a joke, he wrote that his son Anslem had died, but was being kept in a refrigerator to be buried after the election. This he intended to 'prove' that Dr Besigye had a terminal illness, which had killed his son and would also kill him in case people voted him. Anselm is at Harvard University as I write.

His koranic 40 days ran out when it was revealed by a former Cabinet minister that he took money to kill a story about a sexual scandal involving a former World Bank official. Cheeye defended self claiming that he did it to 'save' Uganda which was a recipient of aid from the bank. So he was recovering the costs incurred in printing the publication, which he withdrew. By this time it was increasingly becoming difficult to defend the NRM without appearing to be in bed with them.

Cheeye was increasingly looking like a counterfeit with a misguided sense of entitlement because of the hitherto unquestionable power he wielded and misused as a media personality. He came out of the closet, turned yellow and went on to serve in the government spying agency, ISO. The rest is history. The claim that he was the modern father of media freedom was tested at his requiem mass in Mbuya church.

Not so big in terms of sitting capacity, Mbuya had many empty pews. With the exception of Wafula Oguttu, Joachim Buwembo, Edmund Kizito and Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi, the absence of journalists for whom he supposedly extended the boundaries of freedom was very telling.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues.


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