IT is nearly a week since the The Monitor offices in Namuwongo were sealed off, reportedly for publishing false news.
and Joshua Kato
IT is nearly a week since the The Monitor offices in Namuwongo were sealed off, reportedly for publishing false news. Though Government officials insist they are investigating the helicopter story, some people believe there is more than what meets the eye.
Why should Government close the newspaper over a story? Couldnâ€™t they just refute the story? How about taking people to the field to prove the story wrong? Does Government simply want to throw The Monitor out of business? These are some of the issues that people raised.
The Monitor on Thursday October 10 carried a story which said a Uganda Peopleâ€™s Defence Forces (UPDF) helicopter gunship had crashed in Atto Hills in Pader District during an operation against Lordâ€™s Resistence Army (LRA) rebels. The story said the chopper could have been downed by the LRA. The story has been denied by the army. The Police on Thursday sealed off the Monitor premises as they investigated the story.
The French Ambassador, Jean Bernard Thiant, was not surprised that Government was angry. In a phone interview with The New Vision, he said certainly even in France, the helicopter story would annoy the Government. However, Government would not have closed the paper.
â€œClosing a paper is not good for democracy. My position is for press freedom. We think that the story of the helicopter had its own problems. Perhaps there is a problem with the journalist, but the report would not lead to the closure of The Monitor. The closure is a fight against press freedom, yet press freedom is part of democracy,â€ says Thiant.
Thiant says that in France, if a story is not true, then you have a right to a reply: â€œYou go to the papers and publish your side of the story and prove that the article is not true. Voices of all people are very important to us.â€
The American Center in Kampala was not amused by the move either. Mary Jeffers, their public affairs officer, said the independent media is very important to the US Government, because the US regards the media as the voice of the people talking to the government and explaining government ideas to the people.
â€œBecause an independent media is important to the US government, we hope the problem we have seen over the last 24 hours will be resolved quickly without any damage to the independent media,â€ she is quoted as having said in The Sunday Vision of October 13, 2002.
Army spokesman Shaban Bantariza said: â€œThe Monitor has been consistent in writing false stories. We have cautioned them verbally, informally and formally for a very longtime to take care of their reporting about the war, but they have failed to heed our warnings.
â€œThey have been cautioned to separate politics from security, but they have failed, refused or ignored the advice. This is why the Police intervened,â€ Bantariza argues.
Minister of Defence, Amama Mbabazi says: â€œI have cautioned them on several occasions, but they have failed to heed my warning. In September, The Monitor reported that a Mamba (armoured personnel carrier) had been hit and destroyed by the LRA on Karuma Road, and that together with it, a Buffalo had also been destroyed, which was wrong. We asked them to clarify on the story, but they took ages.â€
Mbabazi also accuses The Monitor of reporting ambushes that did not happen: â€œIt seems they have links and get these wrong figures from the rebel propagandists and this is what we want to find out. This is what they should tell us,â€ he says, pointing out that as soon as the Police get the information they need, The Monitor will start working again.
Abu Mayanja does not believe in Governmentâ€™s operation: â€œThere is such a strong display of force. If The Monitor has printed a story which is false, there is a law against false news. They (Government) are doing it with a lot of intimidation. You donâ€™t make up your mind to do something to a citizen and then go to his house to look for evidence.
â€œThere is something that is disturbing to me as a lawyer and former Attorney General. Normally people shouldnâ€™t be searched without a search warrant and a search warrant would be specific. Government is on a fishing expedition to find out what may turn out as a threat.â€
Minister of the Presidency, Prof. Gilbert Bukenya, says Government handled the issue in â€œabsolutely the right manner.â€
â€œFreedom of the media does not mean that you just write anything because you want to sell,â€ he says. â€œI donâ€™t think that you can go on the streets of Washington and start praising Al-Qaeda and expect to receive praises from the American Government. It was wrong for The Monitor to write that a helicopter was downed when actually there was no helicopter downed,â€ he said. He accused journalists in Uganda of not having their country at heart.
In the academic and legal circles, the move is something that is still being questioned.
Dr. Jean Barya, a Makerere University Law don, says he does not know why The Monitor was closed down, but he is not convinced by the reason Government gives: â€œI suspect there is something more to that. There is a bigger problem than we may see,â€ he says.
â€œIt is not the biggest story in the last five years. The kind of reaction is disproportionate for the alleged story. They could have refuted it and taken people there. That could have ended the whole thing.
â€œThere are so many stories about war. The story about the war in the North is a continuous story that it cannot alarm people. I think Government is sort of panicking, I donâ€™t know for what reasons. They could have handled this better by refuting it and telling us the truth.
â€œSecondly, maybe there is some truth and therefore it was necessary to cover it up. If it is a lie, it is easier to deal with than if it is the truth,â€ Barya says.
Former Attorney General, Abu Mayanja, also detained for two years (1968-70) for reporting on the period of transition, thinks Government is practicing double standards. He believes Government handles The New Vision with kids gloves and is harsh with The Monitor: â€œThe approach that Government used with The Monitor is remarkably different from The New Vision when they printed the ostensibly untrue news that Tumukunde had been sacked by President Museveni. When Museveni made a clarification and that the letter was a result of forgery, they did not close down The New Vision.â€
Mayanja says Government should have known better the proceedings to take. They would get the particular story and editors and put them to task, while the newspaper continued to function. He is also of the view that Government simply wants to put The Monitor out of business.
Bantariza, the army spokesman, will not hear of this: â€œWe are not putting The Monitor out of business. Our record on the freedom of the media is well documented,â€ he says.
But Gulu Municipality MP, Nobert Mao, does not believe in Governmentâ€™s move: â€œIt is very important that people understand what due process is. You donâ€™t take action, then investigate. You investigate first, then you act.â€
Mao argues that Government has been unconstitutional in the way they have handled The Monitor: â€œThere are ways of punishing the paper using the courts of law. Government is breaking the Constitution that it is supposed to protect,â€ he says.
To him, this is an opportunity Government was looking for: â€œThere has been a long running vendetta between The Monitor and this Government. Government has always been threatening The Monitor. The helicopter story is just a scapegoat. Government is doing what it has always wantedâ€” to ban The Monitor. The Monitor case has been high-handed and unwarranted.â€
The Police spokesman, Asuman Mugenyi said Police moved into The Monitor offices to search for security information in accordance with the Press and Journalists Statute, 1995, the Police Statute, 1994, and the Penal Code Act. He did not mention any particular sections Police was applying.Ends
WAS THE MONITOR RAID RIGHT?