Voices in Danger: Closure of the Daily Monitor bodes ill for Africa's press freedoms

A Daily Monitor journalist reflects on his office's temporary shutdown by police

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Two weeks ago the newspaper I work for in Uganda made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

On Monday, May 20, armed police officers cordoned off Daily Monitor offices in Kampala and its two sister radio stations.

Staff were ordered to leave the building which was declared a “crime scene” and the paper was banned from publishing.

When reporters organised a demonstration outside the offices to protest police tear-gassed and beat journalists with batons.

So what offense caused this draconian and heavy handed state action?

The alleged crime was to publish a leaked letter from a Ugandan army general alleging that President Yoweri Museveni was grooming his son – an army officer - to succeed him.

The letter written by Uganda's Coordinator of National Intelligence Services, Gen. David Sejusa, and published on May 7 said those who opposed this risked assassination.

In a two-page statement to Parliament last week, Uganda’s Internal Affairs Minister, Hilary Onek said that police invaded Daily Monitor in search of the letter.

He added that Uganda’s security services had also received intelligence that the newspapers were about to publish more confidential documents in relation to the contents of the controversial letter.

The paper has now re-opened but the ramifications of this incident are significant, chilling and long-lasting.

It shows that instead of appreciating the role played by newspapers and journalists in the development of the continent, some African governments are busy gagging the media.

In the wake of the Daily Monitor closure, a minister in President Museveni’s government said, the “right to publish a newspaper cannot mean that journalists and publishers in doing so are free to commit crimes.”  Unfortunately, the government forgets that neither Daily Monitor authored the letter and most importantly for the newspapers to disregard a message that had passed the text of public interest, would be failing in their fundamental duty as a ‘watchdog’.

The raid on newspapers in Uganda is not an isolated incident; it epitomizes a spate of dogmatic restrictions on press freedom on the continent - the real Africa’s bad story. 

Impunity

In Africa, we often blame the Western Media for covering our continent negatively, yet the new breed of our leaders continue to close newspapers and gag independent journalists with impunity.

How can Africa talk about human rights, development; ingenuity of our people, access to global technology and markets, competitiveness in the global economy without press freedom, the epitome of democracy?

What kind of democracy are we promoting if we cannot respect the press freedom? In Nigeria, State Security Services on January 9 2007 raided Leadership, a daily national newspaper published by Leadership Newspaper Group, based in Abuja.

Nigeria's intelligence agency raided the newspaper and held journalists hostage for hours. They later arrested the editor of the newspaper, Mr Bashir Bello Akko; the general manager, Abraham Nda-Isaiah; and the Minna correspondent, Abdulazeez Sanni. The SSS agents, led by Mr. Kingsley Paul, said they were acting on ‘orders from above’ to obtain the manuscript of a front page story published by the "Leadership" in its weekend issue. 

A similar attack occurred in Zimbabwe; acting on orders from President Robert Mugabe; police invaded the African Open Media Initiative (Afromedia),  a news production company in Belgravia, a suburb north of the capital, Harare in September last year, detained at least 10 journalists including senior editors and equipment confiscated by security personnel. Police confiscated several computers, including video editing equipment. Afromedia, which produces content for the African Television Network (ATV), a U.K.-based broadcaster has had only limited capabilities since the raid.

Again, last year, in Sudan, following orders from President Omar Hassan al-Bashir who is currently facing an international arrest warrant issued by The International Criminal Court in The Hague, two independent and opposition newspapers, Alwan and Rai al-Shaab, the official newspaper of the opposition Popular National Congress Party were invaded by security forces and closed without explanation.

Unhinged

The attacks on newspapers signify the unhinged environment in which journalists operate.  This shows that press freedom, freedom of expression, and access to information for citizens, are not yet values that African leaders share. Most worryingly, the African Peer Review Mechanism has still not yet been able to concretely put these values as criteria in their review mechanism.

In Africa, ours is a fragile democracy where impunity occasionally dwarfs judgment, but our leaders should be reminded that in a democratic set up where freedom of the press is a vanguard of human rights and rule of law as enshrined in the Constitution, the newspapers and journalists have almost single handedly defended the rights of the citizens when the rest of the bodies are looking on.

The journalists have been threatened, some killed in the line of duty and others imprisoned for exposing too much. In fact, in some countries, the newspapers the “new breed” of African leader demonise, have ushered in democratic regimes and derided the bad ones.

In Uganda, Daily Monitor has also made an enormous contribution to the development of this East African country. 

In condemning the Daily Monitor siege, we also denounce the raid on newspapers and harassment of independent journalists across the continent.

In all this drama, we just hope that this madness stops because it adds to the filament of bad stories generated by African leaders and blamed on ‘biased’ Western media.  When the Daily Monitor was invaded in 2002 and closed for several days, I am told, some editors saw the storm coming, but this time, it started raining without any signs of “political nimbus” in the corridors of power. The gate-keepers thought they had applied the public interest test before they took a decision to print the General’s letter. Besides, in this noble profession, there is a public service ethic at the heart of all serious journalism.

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