On/Off: ‘Rebooting’ Uganda’s media

Many times when using a computer beyond its best days just like my now fragile Dell Inspiron 8600, one is faced by a situation where the old machine decides to do a ‘Rosa Parks’ on you. It is tired and won’t be taking any further instructions from you. What do you do? You hit the magical CTRL + ALT + DEL and voila!

In Uganda, the government seems to have some key computer tricks that have occasionally come in handy whenever the media proved a bit stubborn. Like a tech savvy guy not ready to deal with a frozen computer screen, the current National Resistance Movement (NRM) government has mastered the art of rebooting the media for ‘better’ performance.

Governments are about power and control, and therefore a critical media will always threaten and cause restlessness among the corridors of power. We can even see this restlessness with the US government and the Wikileaks website.

In Uganda where the leadership is considered a quasi democracy especially after Pres. Museveni orchestrated the removal of presidential term limits in 2005, critical media have often had to deal with a CTRL + ALT + DEL situation.

In the early 90s the media was liberalised and FM radios hit the airwaves but most of them just focused on playing music and were therefore not a threat to the establishment.

In 1996, The Daily Monitor newspaper was born (out of the death of Weekly Topic). With seasoned and skilled journalists the paper cut out an image of an analytical and truth based publication that many turned to for the truth they failed to get from the government owned New Vision newspaper.

The government first tried to bleed The Daily Monitor by denying it the crucial government advertising revenue. However a growing private sector helped to keep the paper afloat until the ban on government advertising was eventually lifted.

When the maverick Charles Onyango-Obbo became the paper’s Managing Editor, things reached another notch. The paper’s sales grew as it uncovered more hot stories especially with its coverage of the Congo War where Uganda was a major player.

One day, the newspaper published a story claiming that the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels led by Joseph Kony had shot down a government helicopter gunship. The government’s response was to storm and ransack the newspaper offices and shut down the newspaper for 10 days.

After the ten days the paper was allowed to resume business but the Managing Editor, Charles Onyango-Obbo was quietly forced out and offered ‘asylum’ in Nairobi, Kenya where he is currently serving as the Executive Editor for Africa & Digital Media of Nation Media Group (parent company of The Daily Monitor).

Later on when the government wanted to purge MD Conrad Nkutu who it considered to be an opposition sympathiser, from the same paper, it pulled the plug on the yet to be launched NTV Uganda. Since the TV station owners are the same as the newspaper owners, the choice between Conrad and a new investment in the TV industry was clear. Conrad quickly followed Charles to Nairobi.

In 2005, when the then Daily Monitor Political Editor and ‘motor mouthed’ talk show host, Andrew Mwenda accused the government of complicity in the death of South Sudan leader, John Garang in a plane crush, KFM radio was also switched off.

Last year when the tensions between the government and Buganda Kingdom reached an all time high, the government’s last card was to shut down Buganda Kingdom’s cash cow, the Central Broadcasting Service (CBS) radio for slightly more than a year.

However just before the presidential nominations day, the president ordered the radio back on air. On November 1, the radio resumed normal programming but it is clear that some things have changed.

Each time the government closes and reopens a media house we never get the same service back. We get a new version. One that is timid and ready to play safe. More like a soccer player who has seen a yellow card for a bad tackle.

In such times the businessmen take on editorial roles to save their cash cows. This rebooting of the media is indeed the preferred censorship technique for the Museveni leadership. With Museveni back on the campaign trail to seek votes that will see him extend his grip on power beyond 24 years, the media will be following him but at a safe distance!

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About Allan Ssenyonga

I am a Ugandan freelance writer/journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda. I have an insatiable desire for understanding and trying to explain media, political, cultural and social dynamics.
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