By ACME Correspondent
Fears that the recent closure of media houses could have a chilling effect on press freedom increased after Sunday Monitor dropped a story that singled out President Museveni’s dismal performance in a survey of African leaders for the year 2012.
The lead story, “Museveni ranks low in East Africa,” had appeared in the paper’s early edition, which was the third issue after the media house together with its sister radio stations and the Red Pepper were re-opened on Thursday following what appeared to be concessions to the government after a 10-day police siege.
Managing Director Alex Asiimwe ordered the editors to drop the story after the early edition had already hit the stands. It was replaced by a story about a strike at Busoga College Mwiri, which had appeared on page six in the early edition. The paper’s late edition did carry any story about Museveni’s performance in the Africa-wide leadership survey. The Monitor website also pulled down the Museveni story.
Mr Asiimwe told ACME “We agreed to hold back the story because it had not been handled very well.”
He dismissed suggestions that the decision was an indication the country’s leading independent newspaper had caved in under pressure from the government and was jittery about running stories critical of the president.
“We gave in nothing,” he said in response to a question about the letter that Nation Media Group’s and Monitor’s leadership wrote to the government before the four media houses were re-opened.
The Nairobi-based Nation Media Group owns the majority shares in the Monitor Publications Ltd, which publishes the Daily Monitor and Sunday Monitor and runs KFM and Ddembe FM.
Ironically, The EastAfrican, Nation Media Group’s regional newspaper, led with the same story on the African Leadership Index in its current edition that is now on sale in Kampala.
Its headline, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, and the story handling were reportedly considered more professional by NMG and Monitor leaders than Sunday Monitor’s treatment of the story.
There is no indication the president or anybody in his government complained about the Sunday Monitor story.
The leadership index is “a tool for governance–tracking of African leaders” developed by Nation Media Group’s Africa Project.
The index graded all African leaders, assigning them letter grades ranging between A and F. Two special categories, Intensive Care Unit and the Morgue, were added to the letter grades. President Museveni scored a D.
ACME has learnt that some of the Monitor’s board members were unhappy that Sunday Monitor had focused on Museveni’s performance in comparison to that of other East African leaders yet the report was based on an Africa-wide survey.
Some members reportedly said turning the leadership index into a Museveni story was unnecessary mischief at this point. They reportedly argued that coming so soon after the paper was re-opened, the story could have sent the wrong signal that the Monitor was engaging in a personal war against the president.
The Monitor editors that ACME contacted declined to discuss the story.
The government directed the re-opening of the Daily Monitor, Red Pepper, Dembe FM and KFM on May 30 under a number of conditions that some feared could see the media houses tone down on their coverage of the president, first family, and security matters.
The widely condemned closure had begun on May 20 when the police raided Daily Monitor’s and Red Pepper’s premises in search of a letter and related documents written by Gen. David Sejusa, the co-ordinator of intelligence services, on the sensitive question of presidential succession.
In the letter, which was addressed to the Internal Security Organisation Director-General, a subordinate, Sejusa claimed there was an assassination plot targeting senior military and government officers reportedly opposed to alleged plans to have President Yoweri Museveni’s son succeed him in State House.
The Monitor wrote a story based on the letter on May 7.
In a government statement on the re-opening of the media houses, outgoing Internal Affairs minister Hillary Onek said the Monitor managers “highly regretted the story” for violating the NMG editorial guidelines. He added that they had consequently promised that their media outlets will, among others, “publish or air stories which are properly sourced, verified and factual”, that the reporting in the Monitor will “always be objective, fair and balanced,” and that they will be “sensitive to and not publish or air stories that can generate tensions, ethnic hatred, cause insecurity or disturb law and order”.
Nation Media Group CEO Linus Gitahi told the journalists after the re-opening that Monitor had not compromised on anything during the negotiations with the government, but only promised to follow the editorial guidelines of the company.
In an editorial in the first issue after the re-opening, Monitor’s editors and management said they would “remain fair and accurate”. They reminded readers that it was the “duty of the press to publish information that should be in the public domain, on what goes on in society and to uncover and disclose matters that ought to be subjected to public debate”.
By ACME Correspondent