Digests | May 29, 2013

Museveni and the Monitor: Succession Politics in Print

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Uganda Media - 375
Uganda’s Partly Free Press
By Rachel Strohm via Flickr
© Creative Commons

On May 28, 2013, the ninth day since the headquarters of the Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor was closed,[1] the standoff was escalated as journalists were tear-gassed and struck by batons by police outside the vacant office. Members from Uganda’s Human Rights Network for Journalists organized a peaceful sit-in, but the guarding officers, after some provocation, soon intervened, rapidly dispersing the hundred or so journalists and arrested two for questioning.[2] NTV Uganda caught footage of a particular encounter and posted it to their YouTube page.

The shutdown is in response to the now well-known leaked letter written by Ugandan General David Sejusa (Coordinator of Intelligence Services and currently “on-leave” in London). The letter, which was released by the media outlet, alludes to a plot to assassinate opponents who oppose President Yoweri Museveni’s plan to give power to his son Kainerugaba Muhoozi. Mr. Muhoozi’s potential succession in 2016 (once the president completes his fourth elected term) has been widely speculated by proponents of the opposition, but never discussed in such a public manner by a member of Museveni’s inner circle. The letter provides insight into an internal power struggle between the old guard of the National Resistance Army, and Muhoozi’s alliances with the younger Special Forces Command. The government vehemently denies the existence of any of these tensions or plans.

The Ugandan police contend the raid is part of an investigation on the source of the leak, but has also said they wish to test the letter’s authenticity, and that the Monitor is in violation of a Criminal Intelligence and Investigations Directorate it issued a week before the raid.  The Daily Monitor‘s Managing Editor Don Wanyama obviously rejected this explanation, claiming that the newspaper’s full cooperation would threaten the life of his source, and that his paper is protected by Uganda’s Press and Journalist Act and the constitutionally provided freedom of the press. The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) agreed with his assessment and questioned the “method of operation and manner in which the media houses were cordoned off.” The Monitor has been able to continue to publish online, but has no idea of the extent the damage done to their office, or whether any of its sources are safe from governmental surveillance. The courts have gone back and forth on the issue. A magistrate’s court, which provided the government with the search warrants requiring the Daily Monitor to comply, has now claimed that “in the process of execution of the said warrant, the mandate given by the warrant was overstepped.” Government authorities are still reviewing the newest order, and reiterating their calls for complete cooperation. The Kampala High Court is now expected to address this contradiction in a hearing beginning on May 30, 2013.

So far this closure has provoked widespread condemnation across the international community and regional press organizations. The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers,[3] the East African Law Society,  and various other media watchdogs have all released statements of concern. But as South Africa’s Daily Maverick astutely points out, the Daily Monitor is more than just a popular paper in Uganda, but part of Nation Media Group (NMG), the biggest media organization in East Africa. This is owned by Aga Khan, one of the wealthiest men on the continent, and one of the few individuals with the resources to withstand, and perhaps even fight back against a targeted government intervention.

As the occupation reaches its second week and President Museveni embarks on a crucial three-day working visit to South Korea, it appears that there is no urgency to conclude the investigation, or re-open the Daily Monitor, as a legal battle is about to begin. The Observer, an opposition-leaning paper from Kampala reported on Monday, May 27 that the terms of reopening include an agreement never to write negative stories about the army, the president, or his family. These conditions were supposedly relayed during a meeting with outgoing Interior Minister Hilary Onek, but even the managing director of the Daily Monitor would not confirm the contents of their discussion. But whether the issue is settled by the courts or between the two disputing parties, it is useful to recall Museveni’s long history of media blockages, articulated most profoundly by Ugandan author/journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo on his personal blog. Mr. Onyango-Obbo’s central conclusion is that Museveni never cracks down on the free press just for the sake of it; behind the smoke there’s always political implications. The issue of succession and internal divisions within Museveni’s support network seem to be at the heart of this year’s Daily Monitor siege, and Uganda’s free press is once again stuck in the middle.


 

* Approximately ten hours after posting this digest on May 30, 2013, the Government of Uganda released a statement declaring the end of the closure of the Daily Monitor, while they continue their investigation. This decision was made just hours before the Kampala High Court was scheduled to question the legality of the blockage. The statement also lists a series of “undertakings” that the Monitor has made with the government, including most notably “to be sensitive to and not publish or air stories that can generate tensions, ethnic hatred, cause insecurity or disturb law and order.” It will be interesting to observe how this statement is interpreted by the paper, and if it will restrict the content it publishes. Their initial thoughts were given in an interview with Germany’s GW by Daily Monitor’s Managing Director, soon after the opening. The government still denies that the leaked letter was ever received, and will continue to pursue its source.


[1] One other daily Red Pepper and two Nation Media Group radio stations (KFM and Dembe FM) were also shut down because of their affiliation with the report.

[2] “Protests at Uganda’s closure of independent media” AFP,  May 28, 2013, http://www.capitalfm.co.ke/news/2013/05/protests-at-ugandas-closure-of-independent-media-2/e.4b1.

[3] WAN-IFRA is the global organization for the world’s newspapers and news publishers, with formal representative status at the United Nations, UNESCO and the Council of Europe. The organization groups 18,000 publications, 15,000 online sites and over 3,000 companies in more than 120 countries.

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