Reflections on Monitor’s 30th birthday – Andrew M. Mwenda

This week, Monitor Publications Limited celebrated its 30th Birthday. In those three decades, Daily Monitor newspaper and its affiliate radio station, KFM, have made a great contribution to expanding the frontiers of freedom in Uganda. They have also been the training ground of many of Uganda’s finest journalists.

But first, a biography. When Monitor newspaper was launched in late July 1992, I was an S6 student at Busoga College Mwiri. I had read about the attempts to muzzle top editors at Weekly Topic, which had been my favorite newspaper because of its independence and boldness. In rebellion, Weekly Topic’s editors decided to launch a new newspaper. On July 29th, when the first issue of The Monitor came out, I was in Kampala, having come from school for treatment. I bought the first issue of the paper most importantly to express solidarity with the editors who had taken this bold step. In this sense therefore, I joined Monitor on the first day it was published. My first story in Monitor was published in January 1994 when I was in my first year of journalism school at Makerere University.

In pursuit of the ideals its founders sought, Monitor has demonstrated extraordinary resilience. That is why it is vital to retrace its journey if only to avoid a romantic yet distorted idealization of its work, its role and its history. I do this because the tectonic plates on which Uganda’s politics sits have shifted in a direction the founders of Monitor neither sought nor imagined. But it is also meant to caution many young journalists today who do not know what made this paper a powerful force in our politics and think dogmatic confrontation with the state is what underwrites democracy.

In many ways, Monitor was a product and a reflection of the ideals that animated the NRM revolution. The top leadership of the paper were friends, comrades or at least acquaintances of the top leadership of the NRM and the NRA. Wafula Oguttu, the founding Editor in Chief, was an ally of President Yoweri Museveni and they spoke regularly on phone. Oguttu’s second in command, Charles Onyango-Obbo, was close friends to the top leadership of NRM – in cabinet and the security services and so was Kevin Aliro.

Secondly, the founders of Monitor had not so subtle pro NRM leanings. During the Constituent Assembly debates, for example, Monitor supported the Movement system of government against multiparty politics. Yet at the same time, Monitor’s editors also sought to use the paper to hold NRM leaders to account, if only to ensure they do not betray the ideals of the revolution. Often NRM leaders would employ strategies or take actions that violated the revolution’s ideals. There, Monitor would check them, if only to remind them of the ideals that had animated the struggle. Naturally, those in power would sometimes get angry.

Therefore, there was incessant conflict between the two sides which on some occasions would get hot. But these conflicts were largely tactical, not strategic. As Charles Onyango-Obbo has written in his Ear to the Ground column, some of the fights were over stories that had, in fact, been leaked to us by NRM insiders, who sought to use an external party to stop internal abuse. This was especially when internal mechanism of resolving a particular matter had failed. Therefore, the quarrels between Monitor and the state were akin to those between spouses within a marriage. And they were often resolved through internal negotiations and compromises.

It is in this context that we can understand Monitor’s role as a powerful instrument in the orchestra of Uganda’s democratization. The paper was highly influential because its editors were outside-insiders to the system. It is this that made it possible for the paper to navigate the treacherous terrain of Uganda’s power- politics. Monitor therefore survived and thrived not only because NRM tolerated it but most critically because it greatly benefited from its independence and boldness.

The NRM sought to present its “Movement System” as democratic and therefore an alternative to competitive multi party politics. Having a newspaper that constantly irritated the leadership was very necessary to demonstrating its democratic credentials. I actually think that if there was no conflict with Monitor, government would have invented one if only to keep the appearance of democratic practice. But Monitor benefited too as it was able to expose wrongs inside the state and call public attention to them.

Therefore, the relationship between Monitor and the NRM government including its security establishment was subtle, complex and all too often complicated. Top leaders in the government and security system, including Museveni personally, were often sources of the most critical leaks which formed the basis of many of our breaking stories and investigative reports. In times of conflict between government and the paper, this density of friendships and relationships acted as shock absorbers and brakes when some in the state were angry and wanted drastic action. Inside Monitor itself, these friendships and relationships with key leaders inside government provided both intelligence about the dangers likely to result from a particular story and acted as sources of editorial caution.

It is in this complex context of what we can call “embedded autonomy” that Monitor not only survived but also thrived. Ignorant of this complex history, neophytes of today in the media think that democracy evolves as a confrontation between state and media. They only know the open fights Monitor had with the state but are ignorant of the complex negotiations, compromises and accommodations that made success possible. Monitor’s example in fact demonstrates that democratic growth demands the existence of relationships and networks of trust between the state and media that foster dialogue and understanding.

As I have already noted, the tectonic plates in Uganda’s politics have greatly shifted. The politics of negotiation and compromise that made monitor a powerful force for democratization are today ridiculed and scorned. Compromise is seen as capitulation and cooperation as cooptation. Talking to Museveni and his top officials in an effort to build understanding or find some accommodation has been cast as an act of selling out. The call is for a scorched-earth policy of political confrontation. This path may help some politicians sustain the support of particular segments of our society but is inherently destructive of our democratization process.

There were moments when the disagreement between Monitor and the state would be over a matter of principle making the resolution of the difference a matter of strategic choice. Here, Monitor would seek redress from the courts. But the judges in our courts had been appointed by Museveni. In seeking judicial protection, we were expressing our faith in the independence of the judiciary which can only exist within a state willing to respect it. Courts do not control armies and police to enforce their judgements and rulings. They depend on a cooperative executive.

Therefore, if we won in court against the state, we expected Museveni, armed with an army, police, prisons and intelligence agencies to respect the verdict. If Monitor lived under the government of Gen. Idi Amin, I do not think we would have sought protection of the courts – because Amin didn’t respect court decisions. Again, reality is more complex. There have been moments when Museveni has disregarded the courts and sent hooligans to invade them. But these moments have been the rare exception, not the rule. Overall, his government has demonstrated remarkable respect for judicial independence, within the limits of what reality can permit.

The long and short of this story is that Monitor was a powerful force for democratization in Uganda because its confrontations with the state were enmeshed in a web of relationships with powerful and influential figures in government. Had Monitor been seen as an enemy by the state in pursuit of regime change, it is unlikely it would have survived but certainly it would not have thrived. As we celebrate its 30th birthday, it is important we take this lesson to heart.

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