UGANDA: Whatever happened to solidarity in the press?

Very soon, it will be one year since Uganda’s then most powerful radio station (in terms of audience numbers, staff size and business volume) was physically taken off air by the government. The government closed Central Broadcasting Station (CBS) on September 10, 2009, after disturbances broke out in the city following the government’s decision to block Kabaka Ronald Mutebi from visiting one of his counties.

The government’s quarrels with the Kabaka are not yet over, and may not be, soon. Therefore the decision to keep CBS closed may not be rescinded in the foreseeable future. And since the Kabaka is not one of the ruling party’s cheerleaders, we can state almost with certainty that the station will remain closed until after next February’s election.

The primary benefit for the government will be the denial of any opposition party or candidate making use of the powerful voice of CBS to mobilise in Buganda, where some 29 percent of the votes are found. The secondary benefit to the NRM government will be to get returned to power in spite of an angry Buganda, thereby bursting the long held belief that you need Buganda’s support to govern Uganda.

I am here talking of institutional Buganda, also known as Mengo, not geographical and demographic Buganda. While NRM will continue wooing Baganda people for support, it is effectively telling Mengo to go to hell by keeping CBS off air.

Dr. Peter Mwesige of ACME very recently discussed the disturbing high newsroom staff turnover on this forum, and gave views of other senior journalists like The Independent’s Joseph Were and The Observer’s James Tumusiime.

But the CBS closure has brought out another dying characteristic of media – professional solidarity. Besides reporting about harassment of media houses and journalists, much in the same way like reporting on the harassment of an opposition politician, journalists no longer care – I am not aware of any evidence that they do – what happens to colleagues and media institutions. Hundreds of CBS employees are out of work. So what, our silence seems to say.

Was the closure of CBS really a penalty for errant journalism? If so, was closure of the entire station/company the best and only way to correct errant journalists? What about the Media Council? And what about the courts where they could be prosecuted?

Mwesige and I were editors of the Daily Monitor when the government took NTV off air, and withheld its license to telecast. NTV was then too infant to have committed any journalistic sins. It was being punished for our sins at Daily Monitor or to be more specific, the sins of Andrew Mwenda and the annoying language of Timothy Kalyegira. (It seems Timothy managed to annoy some people more by saying they are just of average intelligence, than he would have if he had called them stupid, or some other negative word.) Later, after Mwesige had left, management worked backwards to ‘clarify’ the Monitor editor’s roles, and I was informed that I was in charge of all NMG’s content that goes on air in Uganda – that I had always been from the day I became Monitor Editor! I was advised to upgrade the radio in my car to ensure I was always tuned in to KFM because I was answerable for whatever offended the powers that be, and that included some morning DJs whose jokes were spoiling somebody’ breakfast. I had to get acquainted with so many radio presenters I had been ignoring. I also picked some broadcast jargon that I would never have learnt.

The point is that closing a broadcast station has not always been due to the sins of its journalists, but someone else. But the fellow journalists do not seem to be bothered.

Well, in some cases they are. When Mengo urged Baganda to boycott the New Vision products, other media came out in solidarity, and Daily Monitor ran an editorial strongly condemning the boycott –a voluntary action or non-action by a customer. New Vision ran a front-page apology to the Kabaka over some story, the boycott ended and Vision resumed laughing its way to the bank – louder than any other Ugandan media house today.

When journalists are prosecuted on charges meant to shut them up, they only get coverage like any other criminal suspect – like the Lugogo bombers. I am not even sure they get enough support from the very media houses they serve.

Bernard Tabaire, Robert Mukasa, Emmanuel Gyezaho and I are among media men with long running cases of that nature. Many times we reported to the court at Nakawa and the Monitor legal officer was nowhere to be seen. Yet as custodian of bail papers he was always needed to ensure they are signed. (Note – am NOT talking about the external lawyers who have always done a good job)

We actually successfully argued for an indefinite stay on our own, and briefed the Monitor legal officer when he turned up – late. The Monitor itself had long stopped reporting on the case. Today, two monitor editors have a serious case and keep reporting to court and CID. I hope Daily Monitor will continue covering the case.

I do not know what can unite journalists today, when official harassment and abrupt loss of jobs cannot.

Sorry, I have remembered an act of solidarity by media men last year. It was at a dinner with the President of Uganda to mark Press Freedom Day! He offered them UGX 150 million and they were ecstatic. Then Daniel Kalinaki, my successor at Daily Monitor, rose and cautioned the media men against accepting such a huge cash gift from a political leader as it could undermine their independence.

The journalists united in condemning Kalinaki. The president and media owners around joined in crucifying the man. He left the dinner prematurely. I sent him a text message of support. I don’t know how many other journalists stood by Dan.

By the way, the150 million was promptly stolen by a few journalists and the rest are now sending many abusive emails around against them. But what did they expect?

About the Author: Joachim Buwembo is a Knight International Journalism Fellow based in Tanzania. He is a former managing editor of the Daily Monitor and Sunday Vision in Kampala, and The Citizen in Dar es Salaam.

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