A few weeks ago somebody posted on social media a screenshot of Nation Media Group Uganda’s Managing Editor Tabu Butagira email asking editors to promptly flag stories about President Museveni or his family for the attention of the NMG Uganda General Manager (Editorial) Daniel Kalinaki.
The person who posted the screenshot had a few words: “Daily Monitor for you! Fully compromised. Cry my beloved country!!”
I don’t know why she didn’t say “NMG Uganda for you!” because Mr Butagira’s email was to editors at all the group’s platforms, not just Daily Monitor. They include NTV Uganda, KFM, Ddembe FM and The East African. But this is beside the point.
The criticism that Tabu and Daily Monitor attracted over this email was mostly misplaced. It did not address the newsroom gatekeeping process and the context that informs the message.
As General Manager (Editorial) Mr Kalinaki is the last point of call on all matters journalism at all NMG Uganda platforms. He is not a general manager on the business front. He’s a manager on the journalism front. You could call him the executive editor or country editorial director. The buck stops with him as far as the NGM board is concerned.
There is nothing unusual within NMG circles about editors being required to flag stories about the presidents of the countries where the group works. That policy was passed many years ago in response to pressure and threats from the powers that be over stories about presidents and first families.
The Group Editorial Director or executive editors were to be alerted — not to kill the stories — to ensure that they passed the group’s and basic journalistic standards such as accuracy and fairness, and satisfied the public’s right to know.
None of the editors Tabu wrote to sit in board meetings. Kalinaki, on the other hand, sits in those meetings and is answerable for all the omissions and commissions of those editors. As I said, on matters editorial in Uganda the buck stops with him.
But the most important thing here is what informs such policies? It’s the hostility of our leaders and their families to public criticism. They treat honest mistakes by the media as shots from enemy combatants. That’s not to say the media are always above board. Daily Monitor has been closed before and so have the group’s print outlets in Tanzania.
Rather than facing closure (which our governments have threatened and executed on occasion) every time the group’s platforms published an uncharitable or critical story about a president or his family, the NMG board decided there should be extra oversight from the top.
The job of the Executive Editor, General Manager Editorial or Group Editorial Director would be to ensure that the stories tick all the boxes. e.g. they are accurate, backed by evidence, fair, and on subjects on which the public has a right to know. That’s not censorship. It’s gatekeeping.
Bringing a controversial story about the President to the attention of the General Manager (Editorial) or Executive Editor is not that different from a reporter’s story being reviewed by a news editor, sub-editor, chief sub-editor and (managing) editor before publication. Yes, this gatekeeping obviously affects the professional autonomy of journalists but that comes with the territory.
I know from experience that such measures are necessary. Not all editors think about the big picture as they are passing stories under enormous deadline pressure. Others have their own biases that can easily colour the reporting and writing, and attract disastrous consequences for the group.
We should of course be alarmed when independent media can’t stand up and speak truth to power. We should be outraged if they are indeed compromised by political or even business considerations and other vested interests. But Tabu’s email to Kalinaki doesn’t in and of itself speak to being compromised.
Unfortunately, some of these attacks on independent media (I know this characterisation is sometimes contested) can easily undermine public trust in institutions that we need as a bulwark against the excesses of the state. We all saw what Donald Trump did to the mainstream media in America. Let’s not give our rulers that weapon.
Of course, this is not to suggest the media should not be criticised. Actually, I make a living doing partly just that. But this criticism should be informed and fair.
Democracy needs strong accountable news media. And that accountability starts with the public having an understanding of how the news media operate, including how they decide and produce news.
Full disclosure: Tabu is a member of the board of @ACME_Uganda, my employer. Kalinaki is a subscriber and a former board member, who retired last year after serving two terms. They are both my friends. And they are more than capable of defending their decisions.
Dr Peter G. Mwesige worked as the first executive editor of Monitor Publications Ltd (2005/2006) and later as Group Training Editor of Nation Media Group (2007/2009).