The Red Pepper newspaper which has been off the stands since 20 November 2017 after its editors and directors were arrested and jailed over a story, is set to resume publication following a presidential “pardon”.
Update: The tabloid resumed publication on January 29, with details of their meeting with the president and experiences of the editors and directors behind bars.
This follows a meeting between the tabloid’s management and President Yoweri Museveni at State House on Tuesday night.
“After a meeting with President Yoweri Museveni at State House Entebbe, Tuesday night, His Excellency pardoned the Company Directors and its Senior Editors and promised to immediately order the police to vacate the Pepper head office at Namanve and return all confiscated electronic equipment to the company,” a statement from the paper’s management that was shared on Facebook reads.
The statement adds: “The directors and senior editors pledged to the President and the nation, a more transformed and professional publication going forward.”
The presidential press secretary Don Wanyama confirmed that the meeting happened but refused to divulge the conditions under which the president agreed to reopen the newspaper.
“The Red Pepper people know what they discussed with the president,” he told ACME.
During the meeting at State House Entebbe, the President cautioned the directors and editors “to stop being reckless and become more professional in the course of their reporting”, according to the statement.
On Twitter, the paper assured its readers they would remain “impartial”. This follows a concern raised by a Twitter user who argued that the paper had been compromised following the meeting with the president. “Our coverage will remain as it has always been. Impartial,” the paper responded in a Tweet.
Dr Peter Mwesige ACME’s executive director welcomed the decision but also expressed concern over how it was reached.
“We welcome the decision to re-open Red Pepper and the pledge by its management to be more professional,” Dr Mwesige said.
He added: “But we are disturbed by the manner in which this decision was reached. A “presidential pardon” for an offence that has not been proven, surely undermines the rule of law. We have seen this before with CBS and the Monitor. In both cases, the media houses were opened not on the orders of the courts but on the directives of the president, who is believed to have been the main complainant in the first place. Many rightly fear that in such circumstances, the media will censor themselves in order to avoid attracting the wrath of the Big Man!”
Mr Arinaitwe Rugyendo one of the founders of the Red Pepper, who is also the editorial director, argued that it was necessary for the business to reopen.
“I think issues such as this one require both the court process and the diplomatic process. Diplomatic because the business venture is innocent and must continue while the court process goes on. This is because the crime allegedly committed is different from the business venture. The business means jobs, suppliers, banks etc. So this needs the diplomatic approach,” Rugyendo told ACME.
The three editors and five directors were charged with publishing information prejudicial to national security, libel and offensive communication directed at the persons of President Museveni and his brother, Gen. Salim Saleh.
This was after they published a story in the Red Pepper of 20 November 2017 titled, “M7 plotting to overthrow Kagame – Rwanda”. The police raided the paper the next day, sealed off the premises, took phones, laptops and gadgets belonging to staff.
It is not yet clear when the newspaper will resume actual operations.
“As the formal process to reopen the newspaper that has been under police siege for two months gets underway, the ground is now set for The Red Pepper, Uganda’s most influential newspaper, to hit the streets very very soon,” the statement says.