In May this year, the Ugandan government closed two newspapers. The crime The Monitor and The Red Pepper newspapers committed was publishing a letter by the now renegade former Coordinator of Security Services, General David Sejusa, in which he claimed that President Yoweri Museveni was grooming his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba to succeed him. In the same letter, General Sejusa claimed that there was a plot to assassinate all army officers and senior government officials who are against the president’s succession plan.
The letter had been written to the Internal Security Organization (ISO) boss to investigate the allegations, but was leaked to the media. Despite this, the government went ahead and closed the two media houses which had run the story for two weeks. They were only allowed to reopen after meetings with the minister of internal affairs, where the editors were told that government would not hesitate to close the media houses for good if they did not stop “reporting irresponsibly.” These are the only privately owned dailies in the country.
This was not The Monitor’s first run-in with the government. At its inception in the early 1990’s, it was the only privately owned daily that competed with the government-owned New Vision. New Vision towed the government line as a mouthpiece and enjoyed all the advertising deals from all government ministries and agencies. The Monitor was totally denied all government adverts, with the intention of killing it off because it was the only paper that was questioning government decisions on different issues. It was the readership plus some support from private businesses that kept it alive. The African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) has also criticised the paper and its sister FM station, KFM, for bending under government pressure. This came after it pulled down a critical story about the president, claiming that it had been badly written.
Print media is not alone in being targeted. During the 2009 riots that rocked Uganda, the government closed five privately owned FM radio stations reporting on it. Four of them were reopened after six weeks, after they had publicly apologised to the president and promised never to do that again. Central Broadcasting Services (CBS), however, was closed for over a year. It took a lot of pleading to the president from the media, church, monarchy and other wealthy and influential people to reopen CBS. Since it went back on air, most of the political discussions were bumped off air and some individuals who government felt were anti-establishment were barred from appearing as panelists on the different radio talk shows.
To add to the problem, the government also directly controls a wide range of media. New Vision is run under the government-owned Vision Group and is building up a powerful media conglomerate with four other newspapers publishing in local languages, three television stations, three radio stations in the capital Kampala, plus other local radio stations in at least all the other regions of the country. All these are strictly government mouthpieces, and management will not allow opposition politicians or activists to use these platforms to reach the masses. The national broadcaster, Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC), which runs the national television station and a multitude of radio stations in the countryside, is also tightly under government control.
Furthermore, while Uganda is seen in the East African region as having the best and less repressive media legislation, the government has of late tended to make amendments to the existing media laws to make them restrictive. The African Media Barometer (AMB), which is made up of leading media practitioners in the country from private and government-owned media houses, as well as lawyers and representatives from civil society, reported in 2012 that there are a few positive developments in Uganda with the licensing of more print and electronic media outlets. However, AMB also notes that the media freedom declines ahead of elections as the government grows increasingly nervous and attempts to clamp down on freed speech. Private media houses, especially radio stations, also practice self-censorship in order not to annoy the powers that be.
Ibrahim Bisika from the government’s Media Centre says the friction between media and government arises out of “editorial mismanagement” where media houses publish stories that bring them in direct confrontation with government. Moses Serwanga, a director at the Uganda Media Development Foundation (UMDF) says that media freedoms in the country are getting curtailed because of the creeping political dictatorship where political leaders do not want to leave office.