Presidential pronouncements matter. It is one thing for the President to say, for example, that he will build a million boreholes in two years. It is another to declare the media enemies of Uganda as Mr Museveni did in a statement this week: “The media houses both local and international such as Al-jazeera, BBC, NTV, The Daily Monitor, etc., that cheer on these irresponsible people are enemies of Uganda’s recovery and they will have to be treated as such. Why do they not also report the negative acts of these elements?”
Mr Museveni raises an issue worth debating by people interested in media matters: bias. He has no doubt in his mind that the media outlets he mentions are biased against his government.
Are the facts on his side? I see Daily Monitor and NTV going over their coverage of the walk-to-work protests and the raucous return from Nairobi of former presidential challenger Kizza Besigye on the day Mr Museveni took his latest oath as President. These media houses may or may not want to make their findings public. That will depend on whether they see themselves coming off as defensive or not.
Beyond bias, the Presidential “missive” is plain bad news. This bad news has been playing for some time – continuing even after a new Constitution expressly guaranteed free press, and media scored successes in the courts affirming the right to seek, receive and impart information.
In October 2003, President Museveni baptised Daily Monitor an “evil” publication. Earlier, in November 1986 when he was just months into office and well before the founding of Daily Monitor, Mr Museveni declared: “We want freedom of the press, but we cannot have enemy agents working against us here.”
Every year since 1986, the Museveni government has had a quarrel with the media. The President has led the way, publicly denouncing media houses every so often. State organs have periodically shut down newspapers and radio stations, and the Police have regularly interrogated reporters and editors.
Slowly, a context has been created in which today’s events are possible. Ruling party politicians and RDCs and DPCs and other cadres of the system have taken after their boss. They now casually slap, whip, kick and detain reporters. They target cameras for damage or confiscation or both. They do this in broad daylight, as we are wont to say in this country, knowing this is something the higher-ups will not frown upon because those same higher-ups have repeatedly declared the media useless at best and traitorous at worst.
If the media are guilty in the walk-to-work protests, they are guilty of contradicting a narrative that President Museveni is pushing, and which he wants to be the only narrative in town. The government story is that Dr Besigye is not just irresponsible; he is evil.
This, says the government, stems from the fact of Dr Besigye being a consistent sour loser in his presidential quest. He is therefore deceptively mobilising the wretched-of the-earth – or “drug-users” in President Museveni’s view or better still “the dregs of society, the stone and rock hurlers, the great unwashed of the slums” in senior presidential aide John Nagenda’s words – to take power. The government narrative, intentionally or otherwise, reduces all the two million Ugandans who voted Dr Besigye into a bunch of drug users and rock hurlers.
That storyline runs into trouble when we see via the media the security agents doing terrible things as well. President Museveni would like to see extended TV footage showing Dr Besigye’s supporters and other marchers hurling stones at the Police and the military, but footage from the same outlets have also shown that the stone-throwing has tended to come after protesters have been forcibly denied the right to protest.
By confronting the protesters’ evil with police evil, the evils cancel out. Because the security personnel have and use disproportionate firepower, the lasting image created is that of a scared and brutal government. President Museveni does not want that. So he is taking it out on the media. He, however, undermines his case – of bias – by saying that media have an agenda against the fatherland.
Media must not cave in to this presidential bullying either for business or other considerations. To do so would be to allow autocracy to flourish. They should find inspiration in this 1991 statement by Mr John Tusa: “The media are inconvenient; they get in the way.
But they do so not just because they are congenitally members of the awkward squad but because national leaders need to have their claims to unquestioning legitimacy, to be the sole arbiters of their nation’s destiny, subjected to test.” The President too may want to chew on Mr Tusa’s words.
This article was first published in the Saturday Monitor, May 21