This column appeared in Kampala in The Daily Monitor on 31 March 2006
Suppose you are president of Uganda. When you organise a presidential election, you first take care to neutralise your main rival because you think he is incapable of running such a complex and fragile country properly. It would be a disaster. So, there is no way are you going to be defeated. But your country’s press is lively and pushy. One newspaper in particular, called the Daily Monitor, is monitoring you a bit too closely. The foreign media aren’t fools either. The dispatches they send about your country really irritate you. You are also lampooned in radio broadcasts in which both foreigners and Ugandans and even your hapless press attaché take part. So you send some soldiers to put a bit of fear into these hotheads. But then the donors start asking questions. This has to stop.
This, in essence, is what we saw happen in Kampala in February and March. It culminated absurdly with Canadian journalist Blake Lambert being turned back on 8 March as he tried to reenter the country at Entebbe international airport with a fellow journalist after a short vacation in South Africa. The Uganda correspondent of The Economist news weekly and the Christian Science Monitor daily, Lambert was stopped by customs officials as if he was a common trafficker and ended up being put on a flight to Kenya which he had to pay for himself. He is now back in Canada.
This lamentable episode was not the first flagrant violation of press freedom this year in Uganda and it almost certainly will not be the last. What’s original about Uganda is that this time it was not the police or army or courts that were used by the government to monitor and punish allegedly unruly journalists. It was the ’Media Centre.’
Only recently opened by the government, the Media Centre’s official purpose is "to cause positive and factual awareness of government in the media." It is headed by Robert Kabushenga, a former lawyer and columnist for The New Vision, a governmental daily newspaper, and it has been put under the president’s direct authority. Located at 36 Clement Hill Road in Kampala, the Media Centre also has the job of "assisting the Uganda Media Council in the accreditation of foreign journalists in Uganda." It does this by making "recommendations."
It is obvious what recommendation it made about Lambert. In a 1 February letter to the authority in charge of renewing press accreditation, Kabushenga said Lambert’s reports were not just "unfair and biased" but also "prejudicial" to Uganda’s foreign policy. He was more specific in an interview for a radio station on 12 March: "If I had the authority to throw this man out, I would have done that a long time ago." At the same time, Kabushenga in private made no bones about what he though t of foreign journalists: "We will kick them out."
But things are not that simple, even if you are the president. You preside over a state that has institutions, mechanisms and rules. And a bit of pomp. So it is not that easy to get rid of Blake Lambert. It is true that his precious accreditation, without which foreign journalists are not allowed to work in Uganda, expired in January and has not yet been renewed. But there is a major obstacle complicating a foreign correspondent’s expulsion. It is the Media Council, a body created in 1995 to regulate the news media. Father John Mary Waliggo, who heads this council, wrote to the information minister on 1 February explaining that it would be hard for the council to refuse Lambert accreditation because it had "members who belong to various political affiliations and ideas" and "it is never easy to push them into one direction." Democracy has its drawbacks.
For this reason, Father Waliggo suggested to the information minister and the head of the Media Centre that they should "use the immigration rules, since Lambert’s visa is over, and ask him to leave and from his home re-apply for the visa and when he does so, the visa is denied." A clever ruse. But it is extraordinary that the person who proposed it to this authoritarian government is the head of an institution that is supposed to ensure that journalism is practised freely, without bowing to pressure. We know what ensued.
Kabushenga’s Media Centre, Father Waliggo’s Media Council and Dr. James Nsaba Buturo’s information ministry are supposedly democratic institutions that have been turned into crude tools of repression whose mechanisms are a bit too obvious. Reporters Without Borders is dismayed by the way the Ugandan government has plunged into a universe built of hostility towards the press. If the international community says nothing, we are sure Lambert’s deportation will be followed by more cases. The closure of the Daily Monitor and KFM, perhaps. The expulsion of BBC correspondent Will Ross followed by that of the Canadian Television Network (CTN). And finally, why not, Reuters, AFP and AP. The only news sources for Ugandans would then be local journalists who were either terrified or happy to follow orders.
Reporters Without Borders refuses to wait until Uganda gets to that point and calls on the Commonwealth not to delay action until a new Zimbabwe has emerged in its midst. Otherwise all we will be able to do is watch these spots on CNN produced by TERP Consult, an advertising agency run by President Museveni’s son-in-law. What did one of them say? That Uganda was "gifted by nature"? Cursed with impunity is more like it.
By Robert Ménard
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general