President Yoweri Museveni continues giving.
This has been a good week for (news) copy, as my former editor would have said many years ago.
After the cabinet reshuffle (the recycling notwithstanding), the newsmaker-in-chief has given again, this time announcing the appointment of Justice Bart Katureebe of the Supreme Court as Chief Justice of Uganda.
I had set out to write about what the media could have done differently in covering the cabinet reshuffle, but as I was doing some quick online research for the piece, a colleague walked over to tell me about the appointment of Justice Katureebe.
I intended to focus mainly on how the local media could have strengthened the coverage of the appointment of Matia Kasaija as Finance minister, replacing Maria Kiwanuka who was given the new title of presidential adviser in charge of the Bretton Woods Institutions. In my view, this was the biggest of the president’s decisions on the recent reshuffle (My friend Charles Onyango-Obbo has also called it the most bizarre choice).
Given that Mr Kasaija has not been confirmed by Parliament, it’s not too late for the media to take another look at his appointment.
I’ll add Justice Katureebe in the mix. The issues are not that different.
Now, before we go to how the media could cover the appointment of these two gentlemen more intelligently, let’s take off some time to take issue with the appointing authority, President Museveni.
He could be partly responsible for the lazy way we have traditionally covered executive and judicial appointments in this country.
First, the president rarely explains his choices. He simply issues a signed statement saying he has appointed so and so in accordance with the Constitution. Very often the people he appoints or drops first get to know about it from the media.
This practice not only weakens the stature of the offices, it also speaks volumes about our leaders’ contempt for the citizens, the voters.
Elsewhere, other leaders may every now and then harbour similar contempt for their voters but they will not show it blatantly. They account for their decisions from the word go.
You can look up the way American President Barack Obama introduces his nominees.
The most recent I found was the nomination of Ashton Carter as Defence Secretary last year.
Mr Obama appeared with the nominee and introduced him as “one of our nation’s foremost national security leaders”. The President said, “He knows the Department of Defense inside and out. On Day One, he’s going to hit the ground running.”
Mr Obama added that Mr Carter had served under secretaries of defence from both the Republican and Democratic parties and was well respected by lawmakers from both sides.
As is the practice, the nominee also had an opportunity to tell his story, saying he had “discussed the challenges and opportunities” of the position with the president before accepting the nomination.
Now, this kind of introduction provides a great foundation for very good news copy. Of course, the journalists would still have to do their own independent reporting/research for a complete story.
In Uganda, where Mr Museveni rarely gives reasons for his appointments, the media (and often his handlers too) have to second-guess him.
The cynical could argue that it is pointless for journalists to add depth and analysis to the coverage of presidential appointments in a country where the parliamentary committee that vets them is very often a rubber stamp.
I don’t think the media should decide for the public. Their role is to provide accurate information against which the public can judge the decisions of the president and parliament, while also providing a platform for debate of these official actions.
Who knows, every now and then, the members of parliament’s appointments committee could stand up to the president (they have done so on some rare occasions in the past) if they have enough information about the suitability or otherwise of his nominees.
So, as the media cover the appointment of Justice Katureebe as Chief Justice and Matia Kasaija as Minister of Finance (again, it’s not too late, as he has not yet been confirmed by parliament), here are some tips on how to give the public meaningful information:
- Get the names right (is it Bert or Bart? Katureebe or Katurebe? Kasaija or Kasaijja?).
- Get the age right.
- What are the nominee’s ideological beliefs? What does he stand for? What are some of the positions he has taken in the past? In the case of Justice Katureebe, for instance, what are the key rulings/judgements he has made?
- What do his detractors say about him?
- What has the president said about him before?
- Why has he been appointed? Why him?
- What does he bring to the table?
- What is his experience? A catalogue of the different jobs he has done doesn’t cut it. While it is good to give a sense of what a nominee has done, it is more powerful if you can weave a narrative about what this experience gives him e.g. clout, knowledge, expertise.
- What challenges lie ahead for the office?
- What is the Minister’s or Chief Justice’s mandate?
- (Obviously) talk to the nominee.
- Talk to the nominees’ colleagues in parliament, the ministry, or the Supreme Court/ judiciary.
- You probably won’t have a chance to talk to the president, but talk to his handlers about the appointment. If they are clueless, that’s part of the story.
- Talk to experts on finance or the judiciary/rule of law.
- Talk to members of the appointments committee of parliament.
- Oh, depending on the context, you may also want to throw in where he comes from.