Marking 10 Years of the Observer

To be on the street consistently for a decade is the single biggest achievement of this publication, and yet it has in addition carried reports that have redefined print media reporting positively.

The biggest lesson to managers is that one single decision can change the world. One single decision by Daily Monitor led to the birth of The Observer.

That decision was the sacking of the editor John Ogen Kevin Aliro. Aliro had been part of the six people led by Wafula Oguttu that founded The Monitor.

In a bigger organization, you may never know the exact number of people dissatisfied with the status quo until there is a breakup. That is when you will see people considered loyal also parking up and leaving.

Although it is Aliro who had been asked to leave, he walked away with nine of us and we were joined by Abbey Mukiibi of CBS to start The Observer.

The founding managing editor Aliro passed away before the paper could celebrate her second anniversary. Aliro’s deputy during the first six months, Dr Sarah Namulondo, successfully pursued her PhD but died last year, a few months after rejoining the publication.

Although we left Daily Monitor in the circumstances I have hinted on, we, and I personally, owe our journalism career to that newspaper. It is at 8th Street in Namuwongo that I learnt practical journalism, having been theoretically prepared by Makerere University’s Mass Communication department.

That is why I get emotional when I hear people unfairly attacking and labelling Daily Monitor. I can declare that the able editors of the paper Wafula Oguttu, Charles Onyango-Obbo, Aliro, David Ouma Balikowa and Richard Tebere never influenced any journalist to write what the government considered negative stories.

They simply provided an environment for free thinking and free expression. It is that culture that we picked, improved and replicated at The Observer. This is the journalism I enjoyed practising until I ceased being an employee of The Observer in March 2010, having decided to join active politics. Part of the reasons few newspapers have lived to celebrate their first birthday is because government and its departments remain the biggest aertiser in Uganda.

When you are perceived to be anti-government, few departments will want to associate with you. And this has been a matter of perception perpetuated by some incompetent managers of government departments. The competent ones, like Keith Muhakanizi, have no problem associating with you today and sending you to hell tomorrow when they think you have transgressed.

One of the stories that The Observer broke was the misuse of Global Fund money. I wrote that story. The Republic of Ireland and some other European countries had formed a health donors’ platform. They were the ones giving us a lot of money to finance our health sector. In one of their meetings, they complained that money meant to treat malaria and HIVAids was being swindled by state functionaries. They drafted a protest letter.

I got hold of that letter before it had been signed and developed it into a story. Prof Francis Omaswa, who was director general of health services, protested although it later emerged that his own wife had used some of the money to go for further studies. Because of too much pressure, even some of my colleagues started doubting the content of my story.

In fact, we gave Omaswa big space in the newspaper to deny the story. A few months down the road, the Global Fund scandal unfolded. To some government people, doing business with them must be in exchange for something. That is how Maj Gen Jim Muhwezi behaved when he was a minister.

The IGG then, Jotham Tumwesigye, produced a report accusing Muhwezi of abusing his office, including sending chits to heads of institutions under him for favours. One of the victims of these chits was Asuman Kiyingi, now a minister, who was sacked as corporation secretary of National Medical Stores.

I went to Muhwezi with the report so he could explain himself for us to publish a balanced story. Instead, he told me of how he had given a daily newspaper four pages of aerts and how we would miss that opportunity if we pursued that story.

We were vulnerable and needed the aerts. But Aliro said we should just publish our story and forget all about the aerts. Now as The Observer celebrates 10 years, the NRM government is introducing more draconian measures to gain full control of the media.

Mbu journalists must now obtain a licence from Rose Namayanja, the minister of Information, and electronic media must allocate the government at least one hour daily to popularise its programmes.

Let us brace ourselves for even tougher days.

Happy birthday, The Observer.

The author is Kyadondo East MP.

Source : The Observer

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