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In defence of the Red Pepper

For the record, I don’t read the Red Pepper. I have never bought it, not even once during its 16 years on the newspaper stands.

The primary reason I don’t read Uganda’s leading tabloid is because I believe it is a not a reliable and credible source of news. I also believe it has, for long, been a tool for sections among the holders of state power to smear opponents and peddle misleading narratives.

When I have occasionally glanced at it on the stands, I am astonished at the screaming headlines the tabloid consistently carries. When once or twice I ventured into the ‘shocking details inside,’ a rather dubious selling gimmick, I found a staggering mismatch between the promise on the cover page and the content inside.

Some years ago, the tabloid made a significant shift. It had initially cut a niche and exploded in the public space as a largely pornographic and sex-gossip publication. At that time, many read it rather surreptitiously.

When it went into mainstream reporting, on politics and security, a good many Ugandans were content to embrace the Red Pepper as a source of at least dependable rumour about possible goings-on inside the corridors of state power.

With forays into matters that directly touch on state security and personal interests of our rulers, the Red Pepper had started treading on slippery ground.

Unsurprisingly, in 2013, it was shut down along with Monitor Publications over a letter authored by the enigmatic former coordinator of intelligence services, General David Sejusa, about an alleged Museveni scheme to hand power to his son.

Then came by far the biggest crackdown last week with the arrest of senior editors and directors, detained in the notorious Nalufenya police detention facility and remanded to Luzira prison early this week.

There are Ugandans who find the Red Pepper deeply offensive and morally despicable. Its salacious and sensational reporting has hurt people’s reputations and injured careers. The pervasive aversion to basic journalistic standards is bewildering.

For the most part, it appears that the overriding goal has been to sell copies, and not inform the public, to be embedded with all sorts of interests and not operate independently as a professional media house. The latter could well have doomed the Red Pepper.

The current woes must have something with that embededness. From its headlines over the years, one got the sense that the tabloid had been recruited into turf wars, infighting, and factionalism in security and intelligence circles.

Yet for all its transgressions and failure to adhere to basic tenets of journalistic practice, the assault on the Red Pepper by the Ugandan state machinery is unwarranted. It is even more egregious that the editors and directors have been subjected to state overreach.

The story of Uganda’s relations with Rwanda is nothing new and there could be a fair chance that the Red Pepper’s reporting may well be accurate. But even if the story was a total fabrication and it tainted the ostensible ‘good’ names of the powerful at State House, to use the state to crack down on the media house and round up its editors just underlines the jitteriness of the Museveni regime.

The government has at its disposal vast resources and unfettered media access to undo whatever misleading reporting coming from the Red Pepper.

The charges to do with national security are intended to whip the arrested folks to flip, so there may not be much in them going forward. The real deal is in the charges of offensive communication and libel, which are assiduous attempts to bring back through the backdoor the law against publication of false news and sedition, both annulled by the Supreme court in two landmark decisions.

But neither the public nor a media house has the duty to not offend those in power. In fact, part of the unavoidable occupational-hazard of holding public office, especially the most important office, is the exposure to public offensive commentary.

The dangerous import of state repression against supposed offensive communication is to hand the powerful a blanket shield against scrutiny and accountability. Yet it is precisely for this reason that the law against sedition was struck down by the Supreme court.

The hallmark of a free and democratic society is that public officials are subjected to extensive and rigorous scrutiny, which might be offensive.

The same goes for criminal libel. The idea that the state can be used to go after those who have allegedly published false and offensive material against an individual, even if that person is the head of state, is simply antithetical to free media.

In the Supreme court ruling that knocked down the criminalisation of false news, the late Justice Joseph Mulenga reasoned, quite persuasively, that we can never know that something is false, a prior, until it has been published.

The fact that whatever published material construed as false can be challenged and the record corrected is an inconvenience and a cost that is tolerable than a blanket legal regime that gags free media with a standing warning that if something false is published, there will be severe criminal consequences.

moses.khisa@gmail.com

The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd