Several Ugandan media outlets re-opened on Thursday, May 30, 10 days after the government closed and placed them under 24-hour armed police guard.
“…the Police has called off the cordon of the Monitor premises so that they resume their normal business as police continue with the search,” Mr Hillary Onek, the outgoing internal affairs minister, said in a statement (LINK – it’s on Media Centre blog) he read to reporters in Kampala.
The government re-opened the Daily Monitor, Red Pepper, Dembe FM and KFM under a number of conditions that some fear could see the media houses tone down on their coverage of the government.
The widely condemned closure 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 a senior military officer touching on the politically sensitive question of presidential succession.
In a letter to a subordinate, Gen. David Sejusa, the co-ordinator of intelligence services, wrote that an assassination plot existed targeting senior military and government officers reportedly opposed to alleged plans to have President Yoweri Museveni’s son succeed him in State House.
The letter leaked and the Monitor wrote a story (LINK) based on it on May 7.
The paper and its two sister radio stations – Dembe and KFM – were opened after days of negotiations involving top management of the Nation Media Group (NMG), the outlets’ parent company, President Museveni and government officials.
According to Minister Onek’s statement, the Monitor managers “regretted the story” for violating the NMG editorial guidelines. They consequently promised that their media outlets will, among others, “publish or air stories which are properly sourced, verified and factual” and be “sensitive to and not publish or air stories that can generate tensions, ethnic hatred, cause insecurity or disturb law and order”.
The Red Pepper re-opened later in the day under similar conditions.
“We had already agreed to move towards that direction,” said Mr Arinaitwe Rugyendo, one of Red Pepper’s owners.
Days before its closure, Red Pepper had announced that it was rebranding and would be producing a cleaner and more professional newspaper.
The African Centre for Media Excellence welcomed the lifting of the siege.
“We welcome the end of the police occupation and closure of the media houses, although we would have preferred that the Monitor, its sister radio stations, and Red Pepper are allowed to resume their operations unconditionally as long as they are operating under the laws and Constitution of Uganda,” said ACME Executive Director Peter Mwesige.
He added: “We hope that the NMG/Monitor letter to the government and the commitments therein don’t undermine the media group’s commitment to bold and accurate independent journalism as well as press freedom generally.”
Asked whether the conditions amounted to censorship, Mr Onek said: “No. All the undertakings [Monitor managers] wrote are within their media policy. They came up with those proposals, which are more than acceptable.”
Speaking to staff shortly after they re-opened, Monitor Board Chairman Simon Kagugube asked staff to serve only the public interest.
“Understand that our principles are to be an independent paper,” Dr Kagugube said at the paper’s head office on 8th Street in Kampala. “Independent does not mean opposition. An independent paper cannot cosy up too much with the government or opposition. Then you cease to be independent. You are actually promoting someone else’s agenda. Get away from this and understand you are an independent paper and your job is to publish your news fairly, in a balanced and … in a truthful way.”
Nation Media Group CEO Linus Gitahi told the journalists that Monitor had not compromised on anything during the negotiations with the government, but only promised to follow the editorial guidelines of the company.
The Monitor managers said that during negotiations, both sides did not delve into the particulars of the Sejusa story. They said the matter would be handled internally.
Said Managing Director Alex Asiimwe: “Our journalists tried their level best. One may ask the question, did we play it up too much or could we have done better? We are going to have a discussion internally to review.”
One journalist, who did not want to be named for fear of being seen to be criticising his bosses, expressed worry over the conditions.
“This is an indirect order for censorship,” he said. “Why would I waste time sourcing a story that would cause me problems? Journalists and editors will have to play it safe. Reporters will now have second thoughts about stories and their ramifications.”
Continued search for the letter
Police are still intent on finding the Sejusa letter even after the re-opening of the paper.
“We are not insisting on the source but let them give us the letter,” said police chief Kale Kayihura, accompanying Mr Onek.
He faulted the Daily Monitor for rushing to publish the letter and amplify its contents as though they were true. “That is the problem,” he said. “This is in violation of the Official Secrets Act and UPDF Act; that’s what we are investigating.”
As the government was opening the media houses, the Monitor lawyers were in the High Court appealing against a magistrate’s order compelling the journalists to reveal the source of the letter.
A ruling is scheduled for June 12.