Where the Press Ain’t Free

On a normal Tuesday, Uganda’s largest independent newspaper, the Daily Monitor, would be swarming with people. Today, there are just five of us here, silently typing on our computers in a deserted newsroom.

The Monitor news editor looks over an empty newsroom. The police only let a handful of reporters enter the building to "monitor the search" for the source of a leaked document.

The Monitor news editor looks over an empty newsroom. The police only let a handful of reporters enter the building to “monitor the search” for the source of a leaked document.

We actually aren’t supposed to be using our computers right now. We are only here to “monitor the search” for a document relating to a story that my partner and senior reporter, Risdel Kasasira, coauthored last week.

The police stormed into Monitor Publications yesterday at 11:15 a.m. They sealed the entrances and ordered more than a hundred journalists to stay inside for several hours as they searched the building.

Twenty-four hours later, the presses are still shut down, the two radio stations owned by Nation Media Group switched off, and the electricity just came back on a few minutes ago. Journalists speculate that the Ugandan government convinced Umeme, a private power company, to switch off the Monitor’s electricity to disable the website.

A policeman watches over the courtyard of Monitor Publications Ltd.

A policeman watches over the courtyard of Monitor Publications Ltd.

Before that happened, one police officer thought he could disable the website on his own by unplugging the Web Editor’s PC. “Ha!” he exclaimed after he removed the plug from the socket.

Tough luck, buddy. I think it takes a bit more than that to shut down a newspaper’s website. The Monitor is used to this kind of treatment from the government, so naturally it’s smart enough not to host its website on internal servers.

The Monitor’s operations have been suspended by the police in 2001, 2002, and 2005. The radio signals from KFM were jammed as recently as 2011, when a radio program was tallying precinct totals from the Presidential Elections. No, no, the government said. You can’t do math on the air! (The government had already tallied the votes before the precinct totals came in).

The story now in question revealed a leaked letter that General David Sejusa, a.k.a. Tinyefuza, wrote about a possible assassination plot against top generals in the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF).

If nothing screams “police state” louder than a mass of police officers blocking the entrance to the country’s largest independent media house, then it is important to note that the Uganda Police Force (UPF) is primarily an extension of the UPDF. Ever since Museveni toppled Obote in 1985 and seized Kampala through military might, a strong, professional army has been his shield from coups and insurgencies.  

Twenty-seven years later, the seams of this military cocoon seem to be splitting. The top generals who fought with Museveni in the bush are still in power, but many of them are wondering if their leader has betrayed their revolutionary values. Is this what we risked our lives for? A country riddled with corruption and led by a dictator clinging to power?

Museveni is probably asking these same questions right now. As he gets older (estimated age 68-69), he might start looking around at all of the corrupt generals and politicians and wonder—who is fit to lead this place? All of these people are selfish and corrupt!

Most analysts think that there is a potential successor Museveni has his eyes on: his own son, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the commander of the Special Forces Unit of the UPDF. A little over a decade ago, Muhoozi was a humble lieutenant in his dad’s army, but he shot through the ranks and became a general almost twice as fast as any of his colleagues.

Now he is at the center of power—in charge of protecting his father, the traditional monarchs of Uganda, and the all-important oil fields.

But when you give power to an upstart general, you risk offending some of the old guard who have stood beside Musveni for decades and who hold the keys to political and military power.

Thus, Gen. Tinyefuza’s claims seem plausible, especially in the wake of a mysterious attack on the UPDF headquarters at the beginning of March.

But anyone with any public relations experience would also tell you that this is President Museveni’s worst possible reaction if the “Muhoozi Project” were indeed a plot. Instead of dismissing the letter and calling the old general crazy, he substantiated Tinyefuza’s claims by shutting down the Monitor and the Red Pepper, a tabloid that has also covered the saga.

Now a relatively small story is being covered by BBC, USA Today, Al Jazeera and hundreds of other publications around the world that are informing millions of people about the allegations.

For Museveni, this is bad news. The more people hear about his infringement on freedom of the press, the more they might view him not as a pioneer of development and a champion against AIDS and HIV, but as a paranoid dictator who is scared of a coup.

Right now we will have to wait and see what will happen next. General Sejusa is still in London, where some conspiracy theorists say he is planning a coup with the help of MI6. The likelier situation is that he is stuck there consulting his lawyers because he will almost surely be arrested when he returns to Uganda.

For my part, I’m still sitting here in the newsroom, waiting for the police to come to the editorial floor and search our computers. I missed the excitement yesterday because I was working at the restaurant. Every Monday, I try to give Jakob the day off and manage the place on my own. I say “try” because I usually end up calling him to ask for help. We chose Monday for him to take off since it’s usually our slowest day, but sometimes we still have to call him. After all, he has managed restaurants for fifteen years and I’ve only been in the industry for three months.

I thought about not coming to the Monitor today, because I didn’t know if the police would let me through the barricades, but I decided to give it a shot. I arrived just in time for the 8:30 a.m. editorial meeting only to find my colleagues standing across the street. A police truck was parked out front and a dozen officers with machine guns were preventing any Monitor employees from entering the building.

Monitor employees stand across the street as police officers refuse to let them enter the compound.

Monitor employees stand across the street as police officers refuse to let them enter the compound.

After thirty minutes, a plain-clothes police officer let some journalists back inside the building to “monitor the search.” Most of our staff members are out in the field reporting or writing from homes and cafes, so I volunteered to stay and monitor the search.

I’m not sure yet what that entails—the police officers started on the floor above ours and are working their way down—but my editor said that it will be an interesting experience for me to witness.

As one of my colleagues put it, “this is the most exciting thing that can happen to a journalist. It shows that you’re doing something right and that the government has something to hide.”

We doubt that the police are actually searching for the source of the leaked letter. After all, if an e-mail or incriminating document existed, it would likely have been destroyed last week before the story was printed.

Now there are three policemen going through the building with a fine-toothed comb, looking at every computer and piece of paper. At this rate, the search will take all of today and tomorrow—which might be the government’s ultimate goal. They probably won’t find any evidence, but at least they can keep the Monitor closed and watch the media house lose millions of shillings from lost sales and advertising.

For the Monitor staff, it’s a bittersweet victory. Seventy-five percent of journalists here get paid per story or photo, so they lose money every day that we don’t publish. But at the same time, they are proud of their colleagues, they are working hard to continue producing a robust online edition, and they look forward to bringing back the print version soon with some scathing editorials about press freedom.

The Ugandan constitution protects journalists’ right to conceal sources, except in situations where it impedes national security. That’s the main question before the courts and the same question facing Barack Obama and the Department of Justice’s wire taps on the Associated Press. I’ve had at least ten colleagues ask me in the last two days if the U.S. government ever infringes on the media’s freedom of speech. Well, I have to admit, they do. But at least we don’t completely shut down the presses and radio stations. Nevertheless, the title of this post still refers to the United States as well as Uganda.

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