This opnion article was first published in the Thursday, 20 October 2016 edition of the Daily Monitor. It’s republished with permission from the publication. For more opinions/commentaries, go to www.monitor.co.ug
BY DANIEL K. KALINAKI
The Committee on Rules, Privileges and Discipline in Parliament is expected to issue fresh summonses for the editors of The Observer, the Red Pepper and Uganda Radio Network to appear before it after only those from the New Vision honoured a previous writ.
The committee is investigating critical media coverage of a recent trip by Members of Parliament to conferences in North America, which was part of a wider expose of parliamentary perks and privileges.
The matter has degenerated into a legalistic argument over the power of Parliament to summon witnesses, or whether the MPs are misinterpreting the law and the intended internal scope of the committee.
Prof. Joe Oloka-Onyango, an unrivalled legal mind and one of the few genuine public intellectuals we have, has already counselled the House about the risk of over-reach and being entangled in the cobweb of constitutional law (Read Prof. Oloka-Onyango’s opinions on the issue here and here).
That warning appears to have gone unheeded. In fact, regardless of what the law says, the problem here should be rather obvious: MPs unhappy with the nature of the coverage they are receiving cannot or should not be the ones to investigate the tone of the said coverage. It is called a conflict of interest.
The easy option for aggrieved MPs would be to seek individual recourse through the courts of law and taking advantage of the laws written by the House and the separation of power that allows the Judiciary to interpret the law.
Another legalistic option is to take the matter to the Media Council – another body established by law passed by the House – and let them examine, dispassionately, whether the coverage violates the journalistic code of ethics.
Yet this is a conflict neither party wants nor can afford. Under normal circumstances, journalists and MPs are on the same side of the fence, playing a watchdog role over society and those that wield executive power.
In fact, some of the biggest investigations conducted by Parliament and some of the biggest scandals brought to the floor of the House in the good days gone by were based on information provided by editors frustrated by knowing the truth and not having the proof to publish. Parliamentary privilege became a shroud to serve public interest.
This loose cooperation did not put MPs beyond scrutiny and neither did it make journalists unaccountable. Journalists continued to report about absenteeism and other follies by MPs and those that got it wrong always had their day in defamation court.
That the fight is over alleged extravagance in the House and not some existential issue such as foreign deployment of troops without approval and same such says a lot about the quality of the House and how thin-skinned MPs have become.
The Speaker and a few adults in the House need to sit down with a few editors and adults on the other side – privately, and not in the glare of cameras or in the political theatre of a committee room – and talk through their differences, over tea or worse.
Where journalists have fallen short on the truth – and on other matters there has been evidence of this – facts should be provided, clarity and apologies given, and correct positions published.
Where MPs are simply ashamed at being caught with their jam-covered hands in the jar, the editors must make it clear that they will continue to expose such malfeasance until the House is beaten back from the slippery slope of self-enrichment and MPs tethered to some form of public interest.
There are important battles ahead, not least of all over the upcoming attempt to fondle the Constitution. This is not the time for friendly fire between journalists and MPs – but neither should there ever be a time when evil is unseen, unspoken, unpublished.
Buy coffee and talk – Parliament should be able to afford it, and a few editors too!
Your columnist, in a rare moment of physical vulnerability, spent a couple of days being poked and pricked by medics looking for the source of trouble.
It was almost like archaeologists digging for lost treasures if one disregarded the sights, sounds and smells of hospital.
Nothing was found and a few days of rest should have the old fella back in fine fettle, fighting fires, fists flailing, finding faults, not fainting, just feinting.
Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi. firstname.lastname@example.org & Twitter: @Kalinaki