The Chinese have a saying that a wise man looks for an opportunity in every problem while a stupid person looks for a problem in every opportunity. Thus, when Criminal Investigations Department (CID) officer, Charles Kataratambi, called me at 3.30pm on Friday August 12, 2005 to report at CID headquarters, I knew that the trouble I had been anticipating had finally come – but that also, here was an opportunity. What was this opportunity to be? I will return to this later in this series.
Two days earlier, on Wednesday August 10, BBC news anchorman, Robin Lustig and producer, David Edmonds came to my office for an interview about media freedom in Uganda. They had many questions: Is Uganda democratising? Are the media free? I told them I couldn’t give one answer since the political terrain in Uganda is a meeting ground of contradictory movements.
The media has two elements, I said: one is political, the other juridical. At the level of politics, President Yoweri Museveni personally and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) generally have demonstrated commendable respect for freedom of the press. If you listen to some political talk shows on private FM radio stations, I told Lastig and Edmonds, you would know that Uganda’s media are as free as, or even freer than, in the United States or any other democracy. People even call the president a killer, a thief and walk home sure that no one will follow them, I said.
And???? The expression on their faces was eagerly asking. I told them that at the juridical level, i.e. if you look at the statute books in Uganda, the legal regime governing the media reads like it was drawn by a committee of five eminent men – Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin and Pol Pot. Over the years the NRM has never repealed even one anti media law. On the contrary, it has reinforced them. However, I hastened to add, the government has been very restrained to use the Stalinist legal regime to clump down on the media.
Why????? Their facial expression again seemed to ask me. I told them that once in a while, the government does appeal to these laws to lock up a journalist or drag them to courts of law. The purpose, I said, is not to prosecute the case and win it, but to intimidate journalists so that we can learn to censor ourselves. The bad laws therefore hang on our heads like the sword of domiciles, I said. How about the future? They asked me. I said that President Museveni seems hell-bent on clinging to power. As some of his close colleagues are opposing him, he will increasingly act like a wounded buffalo. The future of freedom in Uganda is very bleak as an intolerant and extremist faction has taken control.
And how about yourself? Do you feel safe? You are an outspoken and critical journalist, they asked. I told them that I have spent the last seven years of my career as a journalist preparing myself for any eventuality – jail, torture, death, and the possible planting of evidence against me in order to frame me of all sorts crimes or just humiliate me. I always convince myself that Uganda is a dictatorship, I said, so that when it strikes, I am not taken by surprise. Yet, I am also part of the contradiction because many times I tend to act and behave as if Uganda is a free and democratic society. Possibly I instinctively feel so.
Later that same day, President Museveni sounded out his warning at Kololo during a funeral of those Ugandans who died with former Sudanese Vice President, Lt. Gen. John Garang. “These newspapers,” the president said while the audience cheered him in loud admiration, “I am the elected leader of Uganda, I therefore have the mandate to run their affairs (sic). I will no longer tolerate a newspaper, which is like a vulture… I will simply close it! Finish! End! Gasiya tu!” To me this sounded like former dictator Idi Amin, not Museveni.
But the president was not done: “I have been seeing this young boy, Mwenda, writing about Rwanda, writing about Sudan, writing about UPDF, he must stop. Completely!” Again, the use of the words “stop” and “completely” each as a sentence is a very common Idi Amin expression if you have listened to the former dictator. The president went on, “He is an expert on SPLA, and he knows the minutes which took place where… he must stop.”
Two things struck me from the president’s speech. He was announcing a new law arrogating himself powers to close newspapers. But Uganda has a constitution which gives law making power to only one institution – parliament. There is no law in this country that gives powers to the president to close newspapers. The last president to rule by decree in this country was Idi Amin. To his credit, Amin’s actions were at least legal since he had suspended the constitution upon taking power and declared that he would rule by decree.
If you live in a country governed by the rule of law rather than the rule of a man’s ego, you would sleep safely and shrug at such a statement. This was not to be. I was determined to resist this attempt to establish an Aminist regime in Uganda. I was willing to die the next day than live under such tyranny. On my show that evening, I hit back saying Museveni has no legal power to close a newspaper, and joked that if he closed Monitor, I would run for president. To prove his point, the next day government shut down KFM radio – illegally. To demonstrate his paranoia about someone even joking about seeking his job, he threw me in jail.
President Museveni had claimed in Kololo that because he was elected president, he has “the mandate to manage” affairs of newspapers. Really? He then decreed what journalists can write or not write about. Although I know President Museveni’s propensity to disregard the rule of law, I still felt that he would respect some minimum standards. I was wrong. He closed KFM and threw me in jail. Possibly he and his handlers thought this would scare me. They were dead wrong. I have always held the view that democracy is not a gift from rulers. It is a result of struggle by the ruled. Indeed, most democracy movements have been struggles, not for power, but to create a self-limiting power.
My discomfort with opposition leader, Dr. Kiiza Besigye, has been to equate his struggle for power from Museveni as a struggle for democracy in Uganda. However well intentioned he may be, the trappings and imperatives of power can corrupt Besigye too. I was therefore certain that my role as a civil society person, located in the mass media, is to stand in firm, very firm defence of my right to free expression and to liberty. Museveni and his coterie of political hangers on were not going to scare me at all – not even by closing the KFM or even Monitor.
It was clear to me that Museveni and his group underestimated the length to which I am willing to go to defend my right to be a free human being. I had once had a meeting in 2000 at Nomo Gallery with Sunday Monitor’s acting editor, Charles Odoobo Bichachi, and two UPDF generals – Elly Tumwine and David Tinyefuza. They wanted to know my source of a story I had written about what had transpired in a High Command meeting chaired by Museveni. They wanted me to reveal my sources. They cajoled, tried to convince, and finally they blew it – they tried to threaten me. “You could be arrested for this,” Tinyefuza chipped in. I told them to organize a firing squad at Constitutional Square and promised to drive myself there for it in defense of the principle of not revealing my source. Possibly they thought I was joking. I wasn’t!