One evening at school nearly 20 years ago, two friends and I carried out a little ‘experiment’, whose findings left me worried about Uganda’s future after Yoweri Museveni.
My mind raced back to that prank this week, as I read Mr Stephen Othieno’s article in the New Vision, about The Observer’s coverage of the president’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the head of the Special Forces Command (See Opportunists targeting Muhoozi, New Vision, November 18).
The experiment came on the day CBS radio was to start testing its signal. My friends provided a wireless microphone and I improvised the research topic: How would Ugandans react if President Museveni suddenly left us?
After making sure that ‘BBC Network Africa’ was already broadcasting, my co-researchers tuned the school radio in the dormitory to the frequency of the microphone into which I was speaking from a secluded corner outside. I had quickly rehearsed for two different roles: in one, I was Robin White in London in the other, I was something like Sulaiman Mutaasa, a stringer in Kampala.
The broadcast went something like this:
Deep voice: “That was Mike Sissons reporting from Johannesburg!… Now we are getting some breaking news from Uganda! There are reports that President Yoweri Museveni has died in a motor accident… On the line to Kampala I have journalist Sulaiman Mutaasa. Sulaiman, what exactly has happened?”
Sharper, shaky voice: “Yes Robin it now appears that the president of Uganda, the hero of the five-year liberation war, has died. The exact circumstances are not yet very clear, but officials in State House have told me that the president’s car burst a tyre and crashed into a stationary truck… ”
Our experiment did not last very long!
Some panicky students started running around like headless chicken, informing whoever had missed the ‘news on BBC’. I remember one student shouting as he ran: “I am going home! There is going to be chaos! Baganda are going to kill us!”
In that instant, I realised I could end up in trouble. I ran around telling whoever was heading towards the gate that this was only a joke. Among the 800 students in that school was a quiet lad named Muhoozi Kainerugaba, now a brigadier and the subject of this article.
It is that same Muhoozi that Othieno accuses my newspaper of having an institutionalised bias against. Curiously, Othieno desisted from mentioning The Observer in his article, but gave information that left it as obvious as the catholicness of the pope.
That story reminds us – as precedent in Africa has shown – that matters of leadership and succession are of genuine concern to Ugandans. It is legitimate for politically-discerning and critical journalists to follow this Muhoozi smoke even if, ultimately, beneath it there may be no fire.
Hence, under normal circumstances, Othieno’s article would have been ignored. But in these cacophonous times, it is easy for people with flawed perceptions to talk their way to credibility. Mr Othieno cites a set of innocuously exploratory articles in a bid to make an insidiously false argument: that this newspaper is biased against Brig Muhoozi.
That is false, and you have to wonder what Othieno’s intention was. None of the articles Othieno mentions can be said to falsely accuse Muhoozi of anything. If Othieno was misguided by the frequency of the coverage about Muhoozi, let him count the articles we have done about Amama Mbabazi or Rebecca Kadaga or Aronda Nyakairima in the same period.
It could be that Othieno mistook the stories for accusations against Muhoozi. Far from it. Yes, the river of journalism often has a lot of death, murder, robbery, corruption, etc. But on the banks of that river, people get married, make love and children, and the children grow into men and women. We try to cover not just the bloodied river, but also the happenings on the banks.
What Othieno can rightly accuse “the tri-weekly newspaper” of is being Observant and plucky enough not to worry too much about whom our coverage upsets or pleases. Othieno might also want to know that good journalists strive to stay a step ahead of press conference organisers.
So, the idea that Muhoozi appears to be coming out his shell, and the other articles mentioned, should not be taken as an attack on him they are simply informed observations of what is happening on the river banks.
One reason journalists keep a keen eye on the banks was demonstrated by our school experiment: that sometimes it is a thin line between the river banks (with students happy together) and the dreaded, bloodied river (“going to kill us”). I am happy for Observer journalists to take note of small changes, for we may not understand the big changes unless we can follow the trail of small dots leading up to them.
Finally, I am still not sure what Othieno’s motivation was when he wrote that article. But I am sure of one achievement: if Othieno was not already known to Muhoozi, the First Son now most likely knows (about) Othieno.
The writer is The Observer editor
Source : The Observer