“Probe assassination claims, says Tinyefuza” was the headline of the Daily Monitor on May 7, 2013. The story, based on a letter authored by Gen David Tinyefuza, now David Sejusa, the coordinator of intelligence services at the time, alleged that there was a plot by President Museveni to make his son, Muhoozi Keinerugaba, then a Brigadier and now a Major General, succeed him to the presidency.
It was authored by reporters Richard Wanambwa and Risdel Kasasira. It quickly sparked a chain of events, including the closure of the operations of Monitor Publications Ltd (MPL) offices. This led to the shutting down of Daily Monitor, together with KFM and Dembe radio stations, which operate in the same premises. MPL offices were declared a scene of crime.
About two weeks prior to the publication of the story, Mr Wanambwa, who has since left MPL and now runs an online publication, says he received a tip from a source in “security circles” about the April 29, 2013 letter that had been written by Gen Sejusa. He set about finding a copy of the same. He was successful.
With a copy of the letter, Mr Wanambwa teamed up with Mr Kasasira to do a story based on information contained in the same.
The duo consulted with senior editors, including the then Executive Editor Simon Freeman, who gave the green light for the story to run. When and how the story would run is all that remained.
It was initially agreed that the story would run in either Saturday Monitor or Sunday Monitor, but Mr Charles Bichachi, the then managing editor for the Weekend editions, said he had sufficiently appealing content. The juicy story was spared for a dry day, as we say in the newsroom.
Mr Henry Ochieng, who was the political editor at the time, tasked the reporters to speak to Gen Sejusa on the record acknowledging that he had indeed authored the said letter. It was important to do this just in case the author were to turn around and deny ever writing it. The reporters contacted Gen Sejusa, who at the time was out of the country—in London, United Kingdom, and he confirmed that he had indeed authored the said letter.
“Yes, I did author that letter sometime back; and yes it is my letter,” Gen Sejusa said.
Walking on eggshells
The first and very crucial step had been overcome. But the reporters had to do more interviews with the persons mentioned in the story. They were racing against time.
One of the people interviewed for the story was President Museveni’s younger brother Gen Salim Saleh, and then Director General of the Internal Security Organisation Ronnie Balya, who had been instructed in the April 29 letter to investigate claims that top officials, including the Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura, may have plotted to either assassinate, or frame their colleagues.
The threats and intimidation began almost immediately after the reporters started calling the concerned or named officials.
Mr Wanambwa says suspicious people began to trail him, while others called him. He says he alerted his friends both in the media and security circles.
The reporter eventually convinced the editors that he had done enough for the story to run. It dropped like a bomb, immediately arousing uproar within the security circles and the general public.
“All the necessary sources were spoken to and the story was alright on the basis of facts. The facts presented were accurate and no one can claim a lie was told, or that there was an inaccuracy, or that there was a falsehood published,” Mr Ochieng, who recently left MPL, said in an interview.
He added: “The reason for the closure must be separated from the truth because the government decision to close or whoever decided to close, I think at that time it was the IGP, they did not contest the authenticity but they wanted to get the source. But you can’t reveal the source because that is the worst mistake a professional journalist can make.”
The first real threat to the reporters came after the story was published. Mr Wanambwa was at a car washing bay near MPL offices in Namuwongo when he spotted people staring at him. He suspected they were about to grab him but he decided to play it cool. He had two options, to run and enter the company premises or wait out for the men to make a move. He laid down the newspaper he was holding and waited. The men did not move but maintained their focus on him.
Luckily for Mr Wanambwa, around 7pm, one of his colleagues, Farahani Mukisa, was returning from a nearby mosque. The two confronted one of the men and apprehended him while others fled in a waiting car. The man, Mr Wanambwa says, confessed that he was an ISO operative and presented what was later confirmed to be an identity card with names of an operative who had since passed on.
Private security guards of KK Security, who man security at the MPL premises, escorted the operative to the nearby Kisugu Police Station. He was released after two hours.
That night, Mr Wanambwa received a call from a friend working for the intelligence services advising him not to leave his house.
However, two other people working in the office of the Inspector General of Police, Gen Kayihura, who had also been mentioned in Gen Sejusa’s letter, called asking the reporters to informally meet with the IGP and the director of Criminal Investigations, Ms Grace Akullo.
Following the raid at the Daily Monitor premises, Mr Kasasira thrice received calls from an unknown caller after 2am. “Where are you?” the caller would say, “I know you but you don’t know me.” The male caller would then end the call.
The reporters, after consultations, were advised against attending the informal meeting to which they had been invited. Instead, they informed the IGP’s office about the summonses that had been received from the police, which the paper would honour. State operatives were running out of patience.
On the fifth day after the publication of the story, a friend in the security circles showed up at Mr Wanambwa’s home and asked him to enter his car “to save his life”.
The two drove around Kampala City and it was during this time that the reporter learnt that MPL premises were under siege by the police and other security operatives. The plan, according to the intelligence officer, had been to have the story authors in the premises and compel them to produce the “Sejusa letter”—the basis of their story.
“A copy of the letter was in the office,” Mr Wanambwa laughs. “But they didn’t get it. It was hidden in a very simple place”.
His argument lends credence to a June 7, 2013 story entitled “How Monitor was closed, reopened” by The Independent magazine, which claimed that the government’s aim in raiding Daily Monitor was not necessarily to get the letter, but to gather intelligence on what the newspaper could have been planning. The Independent magazine story was premised on an October, 2002 raid on MPL premises in which state intelligence are said to have recovered a treasure trove of documents.
It is not clear why, if the government was interested in finding the letter, the raid did not happen immediately after the story was published.
Two days after the raid, Mr Wanambwa’s car was broken into. Two recorders and two small Nokia phones were taken. Other valuables in the car were left intact.
A call from an anonymous party arrived four days after the raid. It was from a minister, inviting Mr Wanambwa for a meeting at his home, to “unlock” this whole incident. Mr Wanambwa was again advised against meeting the minister.
When he did not honour the appointment, Mr Wanambwa says the minister again called him the following morning asking why he did not show up. He instead suggested a formal meeting with the company bosses, which the minister agreed to.
The negotiations that led to the eventual reopening of the paper were proceeding in earnest. The talks were interpreted in different ways after reopening the paper, prompting MPL to issue a statement, which we reproduce here.
“From a professional point of view, I have not been told we made a mistake; no one has told me that at least to my face. The impression I have got ever since that incident is that this was one of the political problems the newspaper has faced with the government,” Mr Ochieng says.
Monitor’s statement after reopening
There have been plenty of comments in media outlets and the social media regarding alleged “concessions” the Monitor Publications Ltd (MPL) made to the Uganda Government to facilitate the reopening of its newspaper, the Daily Monitor, and its radio stations KFM and Dembe. While some of these have been fair and near the truth, unfortunately, the majority have been misstatements and falsehoods.
MPL businesses had been closed down on May 20, 2013 and subsequently reopened on the 30 of May, 2013. We do believe that these falsehoods have cemented the impression that the MPL caved in to government demands.
It is surprising that even some well-respected media observers familiar with the MPL’s editorial policy seem to have accepted these falsehoods.
The government in its statement issued on May 30, 2013 detailed the sequence of events and presented its own version of events. We do not necessarily agree with some of the facts or the insinuations contained in their presentation, and believe that rightly or wrongly, they have fed into the general misrepresentation of facts and erroneous perceptions about the closure and discussions that have followed. For the avoidance of doubt and to set the record straight, the MPL management wishes to state as follows:
a) That the closure of the MPL businesses on May 20 was, in our view, unprovoked, unfair and illegal. That the search warrant that was presented as reason for police to enter our premises was not properly issued. That notwithstanding, we cooperated fully with the police for the period they occupied our premises.
b) Despite MPL getting a court order on Wednesday May 22, effectively cancelling the earlier court order, police refused to vacate our premises and continued their occupation for a further eight days.
c) For all the time Monitor businesses were closed, Monitor management engaged government representatives to try and resolve the issues. Among some of the issues government representatives raised were that the Daily Monitor was unprofessional in its reporting, that it spread unsubstantiated claims on sensitive issues like national security, the First Family and matters relating to the army.
d) Specifically, they demanded production of a letter that was a basis of an earlier story published by the Daily Monitor, in which General David Sejusa alleged an assassination plot against him and other army leaders opposed to an alleged plot by the President to have his son Brigadier Muhoozi succeed him. Police also demanded to know the source of that letter.
e) The consultations to resolve the impasse also involved the NMG Group Chairman and the Group CEO meeting President Museveni in Addis Ababa.
f) At no time during the consultations did we make any concessions or sign any agreements. We reiterated our willingness to uphold the highest standards of journalism as per our policy.
g) We did not promise not to cover any issues as demanded by the government representatives. We consistently reiterated at the meetings that our editorial guidelines are very specific that any matters that touch on the public interest will be covered fully, fearlessly and independently subject to the values of truth, fair comment, attribution and factual accuracy.
h) We reassured the government and top leadership that all the concerns they had expressed regarding our journalism were fully and comprehensively protected in the editorial policy guidelines and we presented copies of the guidelines to the team in Kampala led by the then minister for Internal Security and General Kale Kayihura the IGP.
i) In deference to the person of the President and to reaffirm our commitment to uphold our editorial policy, the NMG Board did write to President Museveni reaffirming this position and regretting that the government had found it necessary to shut down our businesses because of what it considered to be unprofessionalism on the part of our journalists. And, to his credit, all President Museveni said was critical for moving forward was a need to reaffirm the principles of fair journalism, and he specifically agreed that there should be no sacred cows.
j) MPL, therefore, is surprised that its stand protecting the basic principles of good journalism in the overall context of media freedom and freedom of expression is being misrepresented as a surrender to intimidation.
In all the years that MPL has run its media businesses in Uganda, it has been steadfast in its belief that good journalism is independent journalism, factual journalism and professional journalism. It has invested heavily in training its journalists to deliver on this promise. It will continue doing so with the expectation that government will, on its part, uphold its stated commitment to press freedom and the people’s right to free expression.
k) We wish to thank our readers, listeners, advertisers and associates for standing by us during the period of our crisis and promise them that they should continue to expect from our platforms the highest standards of journalism, delivered professionally, with bravery and fairness with the best interests of Uganda at heart.
l) In the meantime, we reserve the rights to seek remedies in court with regard to losses and other damages our businesses suffered during the closure.