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William Pike: why I left The New Vision

In April 2013, Ken Opala of the Nairobi Law Monthly, sat down with William Pike, who was chief executive officer of The New Vision for 21 years.

Pike who is now the managing director of The Star, a newspaper in Kenya, spoke about his time at New Vision and his acrimonious departure. Below, we reproduce the heavily-edited interview.

Mr Pike, do you consider yourself a key plank in Uganda’s move to become a democratic state?

Let me just start by giving you some background, so you understand where I am coming from. I was born in Tanzania where my father was a colonial officer.

I was born in 1952, and when my father retired, we went back to England. I went to school in England in the 1960s and 70s.

After I graduated I became a journalist but then after about two or three years, I wanted to write on things that I was interested in, and I was interested in Africa, having been born and grown up here. So, then I went to Tanzania and I became a freelance journalist there for about six months in 1982 writing for British newspapers.

In 1982?

That was a low point in Tanzania, everything was very difficult. In fact I can remember sitting in a cafe reading the Daily News, and getting to page five, and at the bottom of page five in a small story, it said ‘attempted coup in Kenya’ [laughs].

It wasn’t even the lead story, it should have been the lead story. I got very depressed in Tanzania, it was so hopeless, everything was disorganised, the economy wasn’t working, there was corruption. So, I went to do a masters in African studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, part of the university of London.

At SOAS, I met Ugandans and became friendly with them. We talked about politics: is Africa hopeless? I have just been in Tanzania and everything is a mess. As it turned out, the Ugandan friend who I met doing his PhD was in fact the London representative of Museveni’s guerrillas, the National Resistance Army.

Was it Eriya Kategaya?

No, he was called Ben Matogo and we became close friends. I was interested in the future of Africa, and underdevelopment, and all of these things,  so I used to talk to him a lot about how you can fix Africa, and how can you make Africa better?

But I was also a journalist and always looking for a good story. Museveni had started fighting in February 1981. He went abroad and he came back in 1982 to the bush, the Luwero Triangle, so they wanted someone to go and interview him in the bush. Because I was friends with Ben Matogo, I knew all the journalists they were inviting. I was a freelance journalist and much lower in the pecking order than BBC or Reuters, but in the end all these other journalists dropped out.

Why had you become supportive of NRA?

Because I believe they had so many good ideas, that they were principled and they were going to change Uganda and fix a lot of problems that African countries suffer from. As well as being a journalist, I became a supporter of NRA. Just because you are a supporter doesn’t mean you are a bad journalist.

There are lots of journalists in Europe or America who support the Democratic or Republican party, or the Labour party or Conservative party, but they are still professional journalists. I did a lot of kind of mobilization work for them in London.

About a month after Museveni captured power on January 26, 1986, I got a phone call from Kategaya, saying the Cabinet had just met and we are setting up a newspaper, and the newspaper is going to be called New Vision. By that stage, the newspaper had already been coming out since March as a weekly newspaper.

I went out for a job interview, I helped them with some issues and then went back to England. I had to give notice to South magazine; so, I started work on July 1, 1986 at New Vision. The New Vision inherited some of the facilities of the old government newspaper called Uganda Times. The name was Museveni’s idea, the NRM thing that we want a new vision for Africa.

In those days, Museveni thought that the NRM revolution was going to change the whole of Africa, not just Uganda. You asked the question, how did you further democracy? In those days everyone was trying to fix things in Uganda and there was very little corruption.

People were working for low salaries. It was a very idealistic period, and it’s sad that there are now a lot of problems with corruption. It’s sad to think that that original spirit of idealism was not preserved. So my contribution to democratization was by running New Vision. It was a government newspaper but I tried to run it like the BBC, not like Radio Moscow or the Voice of America…

What will you do when you leave the Star?

I don’t intend to leave right now but if I did leave, this book only covers my life in Uganda  up to around 1991 and after that it stops. So, I want to write the final chapter on the book with my final experiences at the New Vision, why I left New Vision, and a little bit about Kenya.

I was talking to some journalists and they were saying there were only two people who were not reshuffled after 1986 for 20 years, Museveni and Pike.

I did a very good job on the newspaper because the New Vision was the most popular newspaper in Uganda by far. Even after the Nation bought the Monitor, the New Vision still used to beat the Monitor.

The government newspaper was more popular than a private newspaper. You can’t force someone to buy a newspaper; so, obviously that was good for the government and they were happy with that. Having said that, there were many times where the New Vision clashed with government ministers, clashed with Museveni, just like any newspaper. You can’t run a newspaper and not have friction with government.

So, what prompted your resignation?

It would have been difficult for me to leave, because people liked the paper, therefore people liked me as a general rule, and because I had been there so long I became like an institution. I worked at the New Vision for 21 years.

It was probably the central event of my life, and I dedicated a lot of time to building up the newspaper, but also to building up Uganda as a country. Even so as time passes, to be a manager of a business for 21 years is a long time, and after a while, the owner of the business, the government, starts thinking maybe someone else could do the job better.

As I said to you earlier, I always believed that a government newspaper should be like BBC, which broadcasts the negative as well as the positive things about British government, not like Radio Moscow or Voice of America that only reports positive things about the government or the country.

Whereas by the time I left, Museveni thought that the New Vision had become too negative about Uganda. There was quite a long drawn-up process, because I would argue with Museveni, or the ministers of Information, or the chairman of the board, that when you put the negative things in, then the people believe the positive things. If you just put in positive things, people won’t take it seriously.

Also I believe that criticism makes you a better person. Indeed Museveni himself, one of the fundamental principles of NRM in the bush, was that any soldier was allowed to stand up and criticise any officer in the bush, as long as he did it in good faith, as long as there was constructive criticism, as opposed to slander or defamation or unfair criticisms.

If you got up and genuinely thought something could be done better, and you made that criticism openly and in good faith, you should never be blamed for it. So, that was a fundamental principle of the government in the early years. Constructive criticism was encouraged.

In my view, New Vision never deviated from the principle of constructive criticism, but I think Museveni felt that the paper had become too negative, and he felt it was time for change. For me, I was so involved in New Vision, I couldn’t imagine changing, but actually it was very good that the change came.

They wanted me to resign in October 2006, so I said you don’t owe me a job, if you are not happy with the way things are going, let me resign. So, I resigned and stayed on good terms with all the people, I am not on bad terms with anyone.

I moved on, and actually it was a very good thing, it was time to move on. What happened then is Patrick Quarcoo (managing director of Radio Africa Group) said come to Kenya, let us start a newspaper. Patrick Quarcoo had been trying to start a newspaper in Kenya for several years, so we started a newspaper, the Star.

But some groups like UPC say that you were a gun for hire, a mercenary who helped cover up killings in northern Uganda, through your writings.

The UPC is not a reliable source of information because it’s Obote’s party and they published a lot of false information about me, and about other people. The war in the North was very complicated.

It was actually started first of all by the former Obote army called UNLA. Then their rebellion was hijacked by Alice Lakwena, and Joseph Kony is a spin off from Alice Lakwena.

Now [if] you went and looked at those old copies of New Vision, I am actually very proud of those newspapers, the old New Visions, because if any academic wants to research the war in the North in future, the most detailed information is in those New Vision articles.

And those New Vision articles also include details of killings by the NRA although the vast majority of killings was by the rebels. There were a few massacres by Alice Lakwena but the really bad killings started with Joseph Kony and the LRA. If you have an army in a combat zone, there will always be atrocities, but the NRA was never committing systematic atrocities.

This is what I would say, and the UPC would say those things that they say the LRA did, were actually done by the NRA, and the NRA were blaming it on the LRA. But again I go back to what I was saying earlier, listen to ordinary people. If you go to Gulu, speak to ordinary people, not some civil servant drinking in a bar in Gulu.

If you go to a village and say, did you lose people during the war, they will say yes, and they will say things like the rebels took our father. You know 99 times out of 100, it will be the rebels who are responsible. So, there was no genocide committed by the NRA in northern Uganda. The NRA is now the UPDF, the government army.

There is some stuff in my book about it as well. There was one occasion on which we withheld information about an atrocity that was committed by the government army in Teso, but it is described in the book. But in general we covered all these cases, in Burcoro and elsewhere, so there was no cover-up by the New Vision.

I still insist that the New Vision provided the most comprehensive and balanced coverage of the war in the North and that included reporting on atrocities by both the rebels and the army. Unfortunately there were many, many more atrocities by the rebels.

Do you think time is ripe for New Vision to be privatised?

So, while I was at New Vision, I thought it should be privatised because there is nothing wrong with a newspaper supporting the NRM just like the Guardian supports the Labour party in England, the New York Times supports the Democratic Party but they are completely private.

So why can’t the New Vision be private and support NRM? So, 40 per cent was privatised in around 2005. It was sold on the stock market and a few years ago another 20 per cent was sold so it’s now 60 per cent private and 40 percent government, which I think is probably a good balance.

They say that you must have hidden some information about the death of Fred Rwigyema (first leader of the RPF who died in 1990 at the start of the invasion of Rwanda).

There was a lot of false information and it’s very difficult to know how Rwigyema died. The story is in my book and you can read it. Probably he was shot at the border because Museveni had called them and asked them to come back and stop the invasion.

Then some renegade RPF officers just shot him. A month later Kagame came back from Fort Leavenworth. He was in America and shot the renegade officers because Rwigyema was one of his friends and took control. It’s not clear exactly but some of those stories were covered in detail in the New Vision.

Do you want to launch a newspaper in Uganda?

There are so many rumours but I am not planning to start a newspaper in Uganda because first of all, the Star is too much work. It’s so time consuming.

By the time I left I only had to work about four or five hours per day at New Vision because it was running very smoothly. It’s such hard work of starting a newspaper, and even now five years later it is still a lot of work.

So, firstly I don’t have the time, secondly we don’t have enough money to do it, because Star is only just breaking even, but thirdly, I think it’s not such a good idea because we have Capital Radio in Uganda, and Beat FM.

Five of them?

No, no, Radio Africa has five radio stations in Kenya. In Uganda we have Beat FM and Capital FM, and I run those radio stations, so every month I go back for two, three days to Uganda, just to check and monitor their operations. But I don’t think we will plan to do a newspaper in Uganda.

You are considered among the wealthiest Ugandans…

That is also so much bull****. Obviously I am not one of the poorest people in Uganda. What I would say is obviously I am more comfortably off than many Africans, but I wouldn’t say I am one of the 100 wealthiest people.

And by the way in Uganda, there was a leadership code, you had to declare your assets every year, and all my assets were always declared, and nothing was hidden, I am happy to tell you.

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