About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lies and Blackmail undermining democracy.

The lack of basic values as the basis of politics in Uganda is the source of our country’s constant state of crisis.

“It is not easy to stand apart from mass hysteria, to argue against something that everyone – especially the most respected political leaders, academics and experts are saying and instead argue that they are mistaken or deluded.” Leo Tolstoy, 1897
Last week, public debate in Uganda was consumed by revelations that two ministers had received bribes worth US$30m from Tullow. The Youth Member of Parliament for Western region, Gerald Karuhanga, presented documents before the house purporting to be evidence of the bribes. Since then, most journalists and commentators have accepted them as true even without establishing their validity. In the process, attention has been diverted from the more substantive debate on how to force government to make public contracts it has signed with oil companies.

I am almost 99 percent sure that these documents are forgeries. I am also 70 percent convinced (based on about 30 percent evidence) that an international oil company actually paid bribes to some Ugandan officials and then forged these documents to divert attention and even investigations from itself to Tullow; but also to discredit Tullow so that its licenses and contracts with government of Uganda are not renewed. Parliament has directly fallen into its trap.

I was perhaps the first person to receive these documents. Initially I thought they are authentic; whoever forged them did a good Italian job. However, as a journalist I know that sources of information are not always neutral. All too often, they have interests to advance or to protect. The journalist always has to keep this at the back of their mind so that you are not used by individuals and groups to serve their interests – like destroying the reputation of rivals in business or politics.

In a country like Uganda where accusations of bribery of politicians and journalists are widespread, the most important quality a journalist needs is integrity. For example, in covering any story, a journalist should be impartial i.e. should not take a partisan side although he/she may take a value-based position. However, impartiality is like beauty in the eyes of the beholder. Each time you do a story you receive letters and telephone calls from your audience – some saying you were impartial, others you were biased or malicious or even bribed.

Therefore, impartiality is actually your integrity i.e. that you have a clear conscience and try to be as impartial as possible. Journalism is a public duty that interacts with many variables. The government wants to control you, the opposition to own you and the public (although it is never univocal) wants you to pander to their sentiments. If you stand firmly for your independence, you will constantly find yourself at conflict with each of these interested parties at different times; one day you are praised by the public, reviled by government. Another day you may be condemned by the opposition or the public but hailed by the government.

The lesson is that each interested party will only be happy with you if you publish information or arguments that serve their interest or agree with their biases, not necessarily because you publish the truths. Thus, you can publish false allegations that hurt someone, especially a public official that a section of the public hates, and you will be praised as a hero; the temptation to do this is so strong, resisting it requires a lot of integrity. Or you may write a story that is true but goes against the biases of a loud section of your audience and they will denounce you as a sell-out.

Journalists and editors therefore have to be value-driven and to uphold the principles of our profession; to be truthful and accurate and to be fair and balanced. Yet it is very difficult to uphold these values because you have to constantly fight your personal biases and desires from determining the way you report news.

For example, like many people in the public, I harbour a personal bias against a rich and powerful minister like Sam Kutesa, suspecting him of being corrupt. When I got these documents, they fed directly into my bias; the temptation to publish them immediately and expose him for what I suspect he is was very strong indeed. The Independent would have sold tens of thousands of copies, our reputation as a platform that exposes corruption would have soared and we would have been hailed as heroes who finally got concrete evidence that pinned this all-powerful minister.

It is difficult to resist this temptation. But it is right to resist it. I had to put myself in Kutesa’s shoes, a lesson I learnt from my lecturer at Makerere, Lee Dambert and ask: Suppose what I have is false information and it was me against whom it was being published; how would I feel? I tried to used private investigators, sent the documents to Nation Media Group in Nairobi and Global Witness in London and asked both that we do a joint investigation. I also took them to President Yoweri Museveni to have the state involved in the investigations to establish their validity.

I know that Kutesa has spent many years accusing me personally and Ugandan journalism generally of profiteering from selling falsehoods and deliberately damaging people’s reputations. On the few occasions I have talked to him, he has openly accused me and journalists generally of this profiteering. I hope that now he has learnt from this experience that there are journalists who are committed to serving the truth.

It can be a very frustrating process trying to establish the authenticity of a newsworthy allegation. Often you are afraid that your competitor will find the evidence before you; or you may find that the “evidence” you have are forgeries – a factor that kills your story. You also have to be careful in case someone is deliberately trying to use you to fight their wars or giving you misleading information to divert you from the actual story. That is why publishing a denial story (e.g. saying “we got such and such documents and investigated and found them false”) is not good journalism. You are giving legitimacy to the forgeries.

Journalistic principles and ethics are the moral framework within which our profession finds meaning to pursue its public objectives. The journalist has to constantly resist the temptation to appease public anger – just like he has to resist the temptation for bribes from the state and other interested parties. Many Ugandan journalists I have since talked to do not separate their personal biases and desires from how they think they should conduct their work. Others believe that they should always go along with the public mood. They did not seem to realise that using journalism to serve your biases or to appease the public is another form of corruption.

The presentation of the forged documents in Parliament last week produced mass hysteria; some people perhaps genuinely - and many certainly maliciously - were baying for the blood of the accused ministers. In such circumstances, those who believe in liberal democratic values needed to stand by the principles of natural justice: that no one should be accused falsely, no one should be a prosecutor and judge in the same case and no one should be condemned without being heard. Although parliamentary speech is protected by privilege, a member should not abuse this privilege and accuse another on the basis of forged documents.

My hostility to public sentiment was born of my early reading of the Bible when Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate. The Roman governor actually found Jesus innocent and pleaded with the public to allow him set Jesus free. But the crowd kept chanting: “Crucify him, crucify him”. Pilate finally said he was handing over Jesus to appease the crowd, but tried to exonerate himself by saying his blood will not be on his hands to which the crowd shouted: “let it be on our hands.” Pilate failed to exercise leadership i.e. taking a principled stand even against public sentiment. Socrates was also killed by a democratic assembly.

Among the accused is Tullow. It is listed on the London Stock Exchange and is involved in oil exploration around the world. An editor has to be extremely careful before publishing damaging information about it because it can cause so much value of its shares to be wiped out. To justify such loss, the story has to be true or at least to have some level of truth before it is published – same for what is presented before Parliament.

My uncle Prof. William Banage introduced me to Karl Popper when I had just gone to university. I leant from Popper that it is not so much the truth of an assertion or the wisdom of a proposal that is likely to win public support. It is always the feeling that injustice has been done and that it must be rectified. I know that Uganda is suffocating under the weight of corruption; public officials steal with impunity and hence public goods and services are in shambles. The public is therefore looking for someone powerful to hang in order to appease their anger.

However, I do not agree that we all should embrace public emotions as the vehicle for managing state affairs. To use Karl Popper’s argument, public opinion is very powerful and liberals ought to regard any such power with some degree of suspicion. Popper pointed out that owing to its anonymity, public opinion is an irresponsible form of power, and therefore particularly dangerous from a liberal point of view. Liberals had always argued that by limiting the power of the state, the dangers of public opinion, exerted through the agency of the state, would be reduced.

John Stuart Mill argued in his essay “On Liberty,” that the biggest threat to individual liberty and freedom is not always the state but majorities willing to use the weight of numbers to suppress and regiment minorities. This is the case of public opinion in Uganda used to demonise homosexuals and actually plan to kill them for being who they are. So limiting the power of the state does not secure the freedom of the individual’s behaviour and thought from the direct pressure of public opinion. As Popper noted, “Here the individual needs the powerful protections of the state.”

For democracy therefore to protect individual liberty, it has to be rooted in a nation’s traditions and values. We have seen above the values and ethics of journalism and how they protect individuals from harm. Popper talked about “a moral framework” (corresponding to the institutional “legal framework”) of a society: “This would incorporate the society’s traditional sense of justice and fairness. This moral framework serves as the basis which makes it possible to reach a fair or equitable compromise between conflicting parties where this is necessary.”

I know many politicians in NRM and the opposition and many journalists who cherish these values of a liberal democratic society. The liberal idea was born to resist the tyranny of custom, the despotism of the state and the injustice of the mob. However, over the last week, most liberal-minded Ugandans went silent. The public mood is so charged that anyone who stands in opposition to it, to defend the truth would be accused of having been bought. Many people are afraid of being misunderstood, so they opted to keep silent in the face of lies and deceit. By yielding to blackmail from a particular but loud section of the public, most of Uganda’s professional journalists and liberals have allowed the suppression of free speech.

It seems those most willing to criticise Museveni are actually his duplicates. Museveni’s biggest failure has been to place his personal desire to stay in power above every principle or value we initially thought he held. So he has rigged elections when it served him and allowed corruption when it has suited his interests. His opponents behave the same way; they will accept as true forged documents as long as they satisfy their desire to show that someone is corrupt, not because they have been authenticated as being true. They will lie and vilify just to advance their interest. The lack of basic values as the basis of political action and debate in Uganda among both those in government and those opposed to them is the source of our country’s politics of constant crisis.

At The Independent, we have fought hard to wrestle democratic space from Museveni and gone to jail for it; we have effectively resisted pressures from the opposition to be their spokespersons and they have attacked us viciously for it. We are now resisting blackmail from a section of the public who accuse us of being compromised even when they know they are lying – simply to force us to agree with them. We will continue to defend our independence so that we can live up to our name, The Independent and to our values – telling the truth without fear or favour and doing so in a fair and balanced manner. To do otherwise would be to abdicate our responsibility, our cherished values and our promise to our readers.

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