The no-go zones of the Ugandan President

There is an unwritten rule in the Ugandan media. It is that the media can't report extensively on President Museveni's personal conduct, his family or the army. Every time someone writes about these things, Museveni gets jittery.

On 7 May, Uganda’s leading independent newspaper, Daily Monitor, did not just write about one of these taboo subjects, but about all three. It quoted a confidential memo written by General David Sejusa, the Coordinator of National Intelligence Services, in which he ordered intelligence agencies to investigate a plot to assassinate senior military and government officials. The targeted officials were said to be those who were opposed to a plan by President Museveni to have his son, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, succeed him as Uganda’s head of state. The memo could only be interpreted as an allegation that Museveni himself wanted to assassinate those who stood in the way of him passing the presidential baton to his son.

Himself, his family and the army. Never mind that the ‘assassination plan’ might not really exist: after all, intelligence agencies investigate many such conspiracy theories. But spy chief Sejusa wrote a memo about it, and that was enough to send Uganda into turmoil. Here, finally, was a document that alluded to what has long been an open secret: that Museveni was fast-tracking his son’s promotion to the top of the military pyramid, and that he was holding the 37-year-old officer’s rivals or opponents back in order to pave the way for him.

After the Daily Monitor refused to comply with a court order to surrender General Sejusa’s document to the authorities, the Uganda police on 20 May raided, cordoned off and eventually shut down both The Monitor and another leading independent media house.  They searched both premises for the letter and other documents. The Kampala-based African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) described the closure of the media houses as the ‘largest media crackdown yet’ by President Museveni’s government during the 27 years that he has been in power.

"The police occupation has ended, but the siege is still on. You tell yourself a very big lie if you do not see this"

After ten days, on 30 May, police finally withdrew, allowing the media houses to return to business. Many citizens who had been protesting against the closures in the streets of Kampala were jubilant, but journalists continued to worry. “The cheers of ‘we are back,’ made me uneasy,” wrote Daily Monitor’s political commentator, Nicholas Sengoba. “We have suffered a terrible setback. The police occupation has ended, but the siege is still on. You tell yourself a very big lie if you do not see this.”

On Monday, 17 June, it became clear that Sengoba had been right: the after-effects of the crackdown started to appear. Most clear among these was what happened to a radio interview with – the now renegade and at large in the UK – General Sejusa, who had authored the ‘assassination plot’ memo. Earlier that day, Charles Mwanguhya-Mpagi, the host of the popular daily political talk show The Hot Seat, had hinted on his Facebook wall that he would have an interesting show that evening.  “Miss tonight’s KFM Hot Seat only if you must. Otherwise, don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he wrote. The Hot Seat is hosted by KFM radio, one of the two Monitor Publications radio stations that were put out of operation during the 10-day police siege.

That evening however, KFM broadcast a re-run of an earlier interview with Uganda’s new army chief, General Edward Katumba Wamala. Word soon filtered through social media that KFM had been stopped from airing the Sejusa interview. The next day, Mwanguhya-Mpagi sent out a Facebook message saying only that “apologies are in order and I hope you will graciously accept them.” When pressed by this writer for details of what transpired, Mwanguhya-Mpagi admitted that he was to interview General Sejusa for The Hot Seat on Monday but that “the show did not happen.” He declined to offer any further details, saying the matter was being handled administratively.

Only days earlier, Sunday Monitor journalists had been forced by the company’s top management to remove a story from its front page and pull it down from its website. The story had reported on an index developed by the Nation Media Group, which rated President Museveni’s performance as ‘low’ against that of the majority of his peers in the East African region. In the same week, NTV-Uganda, which is a sister station of the Monitor, temporarily suspended Chris Obore, the investigations editor of The Monitor and an opinion leader of note, from its Sunday night talk show The Fourth Estate. Obore was later reinstated to the talk show, but management never explained the reason for keeping him off the show the week before.

Chipping away at media freedoms

In 2005, President Museveni, who has been in power for 27 years, influenced Parliament – by, among other methods, bribing legislators with sums of money – to change the Ugandan Constitution to enable him to stand for further presidential terms. He also sent military commandos to force the judiciary to stop releasing political prisoners on bail. Now, with both the legislature and the judiciary either co-opted or cowed to a level where they are unable to operate freely (Museveni has also filled many senior positions in the judiciary with ‘cadres’ of his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party), the one institution that has consistently continued to scrutinise the actions of the Ugandan leader is the media.

Consequently, over the last two decades, President Museveni has tried at every opportunity to chip away at many of the media freedoms that he supported during the early years of his presidency. In September 2009, the government shut down four radio stations for about a year after riots in the populous Buganda region, located within and around the capital Kampala, saying they were using the air waves to ‘promote hate speech’. The riots were sparked off by the government’s decision to stop the king of the Baganda people from visiting a part of his kingdom.

Those riots, and the subsequent walk-to-work protests of 2011 that sometimes turned violent, provided the police with the leeway to beat journalists and confiscate their equipment. According to a report released in January 2013 by the Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda, there were 82 police attacks on journalists in 2012 alone, at least 40 of them involving high ranking officials in the force. The report adds that, also in 2012, more than 24 journalists had pending cases in court, with charges ranging from ‘promoting sectarianism’ to criminal libel.

President Museveni has also attempted to stifle the operations of foreign media houses. During the 2011 walk-to-work protests in Uganda, which the opposition attempted to model in the fashion of the Arab Spring demonstrations, President Museveni lashed out at foreign media, describing them as enemies of Uganda’s economic recovery. “The media houses, both local and international, such as al-Jazeera, BBC, NTV, The Monitor, etcetera, that cheer on these irresponsible people, are enemies of Uganda's recovery and they will have to be treated as such,” he said. “Why do they not also report the negative acts of these elements?”

Last December, President Museveni warned the Daily Monitor during a press conference that the paper would pay the price for being critical without reporting on the initiatives he was spearheading to ‘help develop Uganda’. “In the last four days, I have launched three big projects… The Monitor never published any story about the developments, not one. So what are you here for? If you don’t want to report [what I do], go elsewhere. Why should we license you? Don’t think it is over; you either report or you will see!” the President told the press.

Media analysts have noted that the longer President Museveni, who seems intent on standing for another five-year term in office in 2016, stays in power, the more intolerant he is becoming to criticism. With the closure of the four media outlets, President Museveni has perhaps lived up to his December threat.

The author is a Ugandan journalist currently based in Johannesburg, where he is undertaking an internship at the Reuters Africa Bureau. He is currently on sabbatical from The Monitor newspaper.

Benon Herbert Oluka

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