Media Council summons The Observer editors to defend MPs bribery story

Media Council summons The Observer editors to defend MPs bribery story
Mr. Paulo Ekochu, Chairman, Media Council of Uganda.

Kampala, Uganda | By Michael Wandati | The Media Council of Uganda has summoned the editors of The Observer newspaper to address allegations of undermining the integrity of Parliament, among a raft of accusations related to not helping maintain public trust in MPs.

Chairman Paulo Ekochu issued the summons on May 8, citing concerns regarding an article featured in the April 24-30 edition of The Observer.

“Pursuant to powers vested in the Council under Section 9 of the Press and Journalists Act Cap. 105, you are hereby summoned to appear before the disciplinary committee of the Council on May 20 at 10am to answer to the issues raised herein,” he said.

Mr Pius Muteekani Katunzi, managing editor of The Observer, confirmed receipt of the letter and said they will prepare an explanation to be delivered to the Council.

The bi-weekly paper ran the article under the headline, “MPs bribed to save government agencies“.

Quoting unnamed sources, the article said MPs had received bribes ranging from Shs 500,000 to Shs 2 million to stop their merger under the government’s rationalisation push.

“These agencies, facing the prospect of being phased out, have been actively lobbying MPs to support their continued existence,” it said.

“The financial incentives reportedly come from influential figures within both the government and parliament, aiming to sway MPs in favour of retaining these agencies.”

Parliament strongly objected to the publication, with Speaker Anita Among expressing dismay over the allegations during a plenary session on April 24th.

“I am going to ask our legal officer to take up this case because you can’t tarnish the integrity of my members, because no member was bribed… whatever didn’t go through, it was a consensus,” she said.

Mr Ekochu said that to a “reasonable man”, the article “manifests a derogation of the sanctity of Parliament”.

“It is necessary that its substance be interrogated with a view to assuring that journalistic principles of accuracy and balance have been exercised to the letter,” he added.

However, the summons has faced significant criticism, with many perceiving bias in Mr. Ekochu’s letter. The letter begins by lecturing The Observer on Parliament’s functions and even suggests the importance of maintaining public trust in Parliament and the government.

Ms. Agather Atuhaire, a journalist, lawyer, and rights activist, found it noteworthy that the Council was assigning the responsibility of maintaining public trust in Parliament and its integrity to journalists.

“They are not concerned at all about how the people occupying that Parliament are conducting themselves but they’re in essence telling journalists that no matter what the occupiers of these offices do, make sure you protect the sanctity of the institution,” she said.

“That’s not what journalists, as members of the Fourth Estate, are supposed to do.”

Media scholar and activist Dr Jimmy Spire Ssentongo called the letter “an obvious proxy fight for Parliament” and that it was flawed at many fronts.

“While summoning, they already passed judgement, and they are instead advising The Observer to do propaganda job for Parliament,” he said.

“It [the Council] doesn’t seem to be interested in whether Observer has evidence for its story or not, all that has been in the media about Parliament notwithstanding. They simply want to enforce ‘public trust’ in Parliament.”

In 2022, Mr. Ekochu emphasized the importance of press freedom, stating that liberty and democracy are built upon the foundation of freedom of expression.

“It would be wholly wrong to respond to the present state of the law with any action that inhibits a free and vigorous press. That is the lifeblood of liberal democracy,” he said.

However, on Monday, he was not receptive to inquiries from the Kampala Dispatch regarding the identity of the complainant who prompted the summons.

“Why would you want to know who lodged the complaint?” he asked. “The letter is summoning them to just come and explain whether the story that you read, whether it was balanced. Are you the one trying me now by asking me who is complaining?”

He said his interest was in finding out whether the story is right.

“Let us just get an explanation from them, not that we want to tell them that you are wrong or you are right,’ he said. “Why are you asking me questions if you are telling me I am passing judgement? That is your interpretation of the letter, not ours.”

This marks the second instance of the Council summoning The Observer editors. In 2022, they were questioned regarding an article concerning the conduct of Dr. Diana Atwine, the permanent secretary of the Health Ministry. Despite nearly a year of regular reporting before the Council’s disciplinary committee, no resolution was reached.

Recently, the Council accused editors from various outlets, including New Vision, Entebbe Post, Nation Times, PML Daily, Ultimate News, Daily Express, Red Pepper, and The Onion, of breaching ethical standards in their coverage of Henrietta Nairuba Wamala and other high-ranking officials of the Uganda North America Association.

Also Read: Jim Spire ‘fears for life’ after exposing corruption in Uganda’s Parliament

In April 2021, editors of the Daily Monitor were summoned over an article adapted from the Wall Street Journal alleging that members of Museveni’s inner circle received Covid vaccinations. Although the case was already in court at the time, Mr. Ekochu asserted the Council’s right to verify the accuracy of the story.

“I think these media regulatory bodies are the biggest threat to independent journalism,” said a journalist who preferred not to be named.

“They are used by political figures to intimidate and harass journalists.”

Another source within The Observer, who preferred not to be quoted, remarked that Mr. Ekochu is essentially acting as a judge in his own cause.

“If he believes we have degraded the integrity of Parliament, why does he summon us,” the source said.

Ms. Atuhaire, a vocal critic of Parliament whom she previously covered and a key figure in social media exposes on various institutions, proposed that the Media Council allow any aggrieved party to pursue legal action first.

She suggested that the Council intervene to enforce discipline only after it has been determined in court that the information was indeed false and defamatory.