By Brenda Banura
Day is Monday, May 20, 2013. Time check is 11:30 a.m.
By then, most of the reporters and photojournalists have gone to the field. The Monitor Publications’ head office on Kampala’s Eighth Street is a strange sight. In the inside parking yard are six or four armed men in blue camouflage police uniform facing the editorial block, away from the commercial block. One is standing at the gate used by administrators and a couple of senior editors to access that parking lot.
But the catch is that there are others standing outside. They are many and they are armed. A group of seven or so is stationed near the outside parking lot about where the motorcycle riders for hire (boda boda) normally park. Two police patrol cars are parked nearby. Other security agents are scattered about.
One of the men controls traffic on Eighth Street. The cars have slowed down as their drivers crane their necks through the windows to see what is happening.
In addition, there are five more men on either side of the main entrance. The Monitor press release, issued hours later, said there were about 50 security personnel.
Soon a buzz sweeps through the newsroom that we have been surrounded. Everyone heads for the windows to confirm.
I was shocked to see so many people in police uniform at our premises. Like many colleagues, however, I thought they would soon leave.
The features floor where I sit offered the best view. We could easily monitor what was going on. We continued working thinking the following day’s paper would go to bed.
But the excitement in all departments was high. It was hard to concentrate. It didn’t help that the closure was trending on social network sites Twitter and Facebook.
Only the photojournalists were visibly working. They kept on capturing the scenes on camera from all angles.
On learning that a similar scene was unfolding at the Red Pepper offices, some 10km away, we knew this was more serious than we thought.
And for emphasis, the senior staff advised that we don’t take this lightly as a similar raid on the same Monitor offices in October 2002 didn’t go well – the paper remained closed for a week. Those tales were our reality check. Though that didn’t reduce the excitement, the fear of losing data made us calmer. The best option was to back up as much data as possible; some of the staff got busy doing just that.
Close to 1 p.m., there was increased activity at the stairs. The managing editor paced about the features floor, where his office is located, making and receiving calls.
The managing director, company lawyer, Nation Media Group (majority owner of Monitor Publications) chief of operations stood in front of the editorial block, chatting, trying to figure out why the premises were surrounded by police. But the policemen at the scene were not providing any useful information. We kept on speculating.
Talk in the corridor was that they had come to search for the letter from Gen. Sejusa that had been published in the newspaper on May 7 talking about fallout over presidential succession within very high government and military circles. This was because some colleagues from news had been summoned earlier and asked to the take the letter to the police, which they had declined to do.
At first, Monitor employees were being allowed into the building. But as more returned from the field, they were stopped from accessing the office. No one was allowed to go outside either.
Grace Kenganzi and I were refused from going out to buy airtime. The main entrance was locked and Monitor security replaced by two men in police uniform carrying guns. The reception was dark and with security men in civilian attire and others in police uniform.
At about 1:20 p.m., investigative officer Geoffrey Musana, escorted by police, arrived with a search warrant authorising the police to search everything and anything and carry away any evidence they found.
The actual search team had about 15 people, some in uniform, some in civilian wear. Security personnel from KK, the Monitor’s private security service provider, checked each of the search team members before letting them inside the editorial block. This was to ensure they didn’t come with what they were looking for, drop it in the office and then claim that they found it.
First to be searched was the printing press area. The search was brief and ended with the press being switched off.
Once inside the editorial block, the search team went straight to the KFM and Dembe FM studios and asked staff to go out for lunch. Two remained to witness the search. At first they let the presenters at both radios continue presenting as they searched. But after a while, they were told to get out and the stations were switched off. But this was not before radio staff had pleaded with police to allow the presenters to inform listeners that the radio stations were going off the air. The request was granted.
When the Monitor lawyer called the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the top official there didn’t even know police were at the Monitor offices. But then a while later, a letter was delivered authorising police to switch off the two radio stations because they were located at a crime scene (read Monitor offices).
By 2:30 p.m. several civil society activists had camped outside the Daily Monitor to protest the police actions. “Lock up thieves, not journalists,” some of their placards read. Some activists had cello tape across their mouths.
As the crowd grew bigger, it got rowdy. It was then that the police lobbed a teargas canister at them. The people in the Monitor canteen were affected the most.
At an emergency meeting at 3 p.m. the managing director confirmed that a search warrant that didn’t specify what police were looking for had been issued by court.
The top managers were shocked and surprised like the rest of us. In fact, they had just driven out of the premises to go attend a board meeting when they were called and informed that we were surrounded.
Electricity switched off
We heard that police had ordered electricity to be switched off. This was after a car belonging to power distributor Umeme was seen at our premises. Indeed, the place went dark at about 3 p.m. and we had to rely on a generator. Through its Twitter account, however, Umeme said its workers were at the Monitor on routine duty.
A colleague reported that the police had ordered the online team to switch off the paper’s website by unplugging their computers from the power source.
The search team moved to the administration and legal section after the radio stations. The team would stay there, turning the place over until 5:30 p.m. when the day’s business ended.
Close to 6 p.m., the police ordered everyone to vacate the building, or crime scene for that matter.
They then sealed the entrance to the editorial offices with red tape. The Monitor security team put a chain on the door.
The information the search party was looking for had not been found.
Enter day 2
On day two, the police surrounding the premises were not in camouflage uniform like the day before. There were no police cars in sight. A handful of employees were allowed in close to 9 a.m. to witness the search. I was one of them.
The door to the editorial floors was unsealed by police and the Monitor security team. The search in the legal and administration section resumed. The pace was slow, possibly deliberately so.
Eventually, the searchers came to the features floor and examined every piece of paper, opened books and read a page or two. They unsealed letters from readers to editors and read them. The dustbins were combed too.
They kept asking us to give them “the letter” so that they can allow us resume operations quickly.
Day three kicked off in almost the same way as day two only that this time the search team started at 10 a.m., an hour later than before.