September 1, 2005

Fighting for Press Freedom in Uganda

Andrew Mwenda, the prominent and outspoken Ugandan journalist arrested last month for sedition, speaks to Gelf about his case and why he won't stay silent.

Carl Bialik

"I never change," Andrew Mwenda told me when I reached him by phone last week. "I am as constant as the Northern Star."

Andrew Mwenda
Carl Bialik
Andrew Mwenda in Kampala, Uganda, in July 2001.
Mwenda, Uganda's most prominent journalist, is a unique mix of erudition and blazing confidence verging on foolhardiness. He is also the target of his government's crackdown on the free press, and so his promise of constancy, channeled through a quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, was no mere rhetorical flourish, but instead a brave declaration of his intent to keep broadcasting his free opinion, even if other local journalists may be cowed.

Mwenda's troubles began on Aug. 12, after he said on his radio program that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's government deserved some blame for the July 30 death of Sudanese vice-president John Garang, who was returning in from Uganda when his helicopter crashed. Museveni had warned local journalists against making speculative statements about the death, just hours before Mwenda went on air. The government arrested Mwenda, and he spent a weekend in jail before being released on bail; his sedition trial started earlier this week.

After a quick trip to meet with his bosses in the Nation Media Group's offices in Kenya, Mwenda went right back on air with controversial topics. Last week, he again discussed Garang's death, repeating his argument that "the government of Uganda should take responsibility." His reasonable but now dangerous logic: Garang took off from Uganda at dusk, in bad weather, to embark on a route that would take him over rebel-controlled territory. Surely Ugandan authorities deserve some blame for letting that happen.

Mwenda is aware that continuing to state these views on air could endanger his case. "I prefer to live with my feet in jail than to live on my knees out of jail," he told me.

Andrew Mwenda is my friend. I met him in Uganda when working there as a freelance journalist in 2001, I have seen him since in New York, and I admire his work. I also fear for his safety. He acknowledges that he often uses immoderate speech; his bosses told him as much after the arrest. "You have an angry bull in front of you; be careful," Mwenda says he was told. "You can speak your mind, but use measured language." Listeners have also called in frequently to tell him to moderate his incendiary words, though not his message.

Mwenda is a policy geek who has studied economics and is a strong believer in processes and meritocracy. He collects National Geographic DVDs about the politics of ancient cities and takes notes as he watches them on Sunday mornings. This is the same Mwenda who will have spent the previous night partying at Ange Noir, Kampala's biggest night club, where his charismatic nature and high profile make him one of Uganda's biggest celebrities. It's as though Jeffrey Sachs were also a rock star.

Mwenda sees his country ruled by a government that is beloved by foreign donor countries and organizations and yet wastes aid—in March he wrote a column for the International Herald Tribune entitled, "Foreign aid sabotages reform." He claims that Museveni is corrupt, governs via patronage, and stifles free speech and property rights. Though Mwenda and Museveni used to speak over the phone regularly, their relationship has soured as Mwenda continues to speak out against the president. Mwenda credits Museveni, once a military commander, with helping to liberate the country from Idi Amin, and with not much else since then. Of course, his arrest has done nothing but feed that perception; he told me the government was a "dictatorial regime" that "shuns due process."

Given his attitude and fiery style, Mwenda is surprised that he wasn't arrested earlier. "I have been expecting it for years," he says. "It's funny that it has come so late." He says he psychologically prepared himself for jail and enjoyed meeting his fellow inmates; more than that, he enjoyed the freedom from emails and phone calls. "When I am in jail I have no responsibilities. I was just relaxing." He also had to soothe his mother's nerves. "I told her my life would be meaningless" if he didn't say what he believes, he says. He also had been telling his girlfriend for several months to prepare herself for this possibility.

But the arrest was never aimed at silencing Mwenda, he says. Its intent—like that of a previous crackdown on Mwenda's newspaper, the Monitor, for which I have written in the past—was to intimidate other journalists, and by his reckoning, that goal has been achieved, regardless of the court's decision. He says that when he has appeared on other journalists' talk shows to discuss the case, they told him, "Please don't speak too much; you will lose our job."

I asked Mwenda about the political opposition, to which pro-government forces often try to link him. He responded dismissively that the opposition is "very, very weak." This stance puts him in an odd spot—he's a critic of two of his potential allies: the opposition and international-aid groups. (The international media is more supportive, with both the Economist and the New Republic Online having printed favorable pieces.) And yet he says there is a groundswell of support from individuals in Uganda, saying he's received emails, text messages, letters, phone calls, even comments in the street, and they've nearly all been positive. Even the police who arrested him, Mwenda says, "told me they were behind me and agreed with my cause."

Does this indicate that conditions are ripe for political upheaval in Uganda? Mwenda waves off that possibility, saying that the country lacks "social dynamite." He adds, "There's no supply of political leadership nor organization to catalyze the feeling of oppression and resentment."

Mwenda at times sounds more like a political activist than a journalist, and I thought he might see himself as holding social-dynamite potential. I asked him if he'd consider a career in politics. "I can't rule that one out," he said, though he added, "In Uganda, journalism gives me a very important platform to express my views and support causes I believe in."

David Goldenberg contributed to this article.

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- World
- posted on Jul 06, 07

Thanx alot for all the effort exihibited in your struggles. We're silent supporters of Uganda and we're behind every possitive effort you make. Long live
to see the fruits of your sweats, God bless you so much.
In support Henry
( IRAQ )

- World
- posted on Jul 27, 07
Rwakakmba Morrison

Well I like the art with which you guys perched the article on Mwenda. For me Andrew's views represent politics of purpose. Thats why he belongs not to government and equally opposition. These two groups are preocupied with quest for power and how to sustain and retain themselves in power. Because of mere populism, Ugandans no longer take these two contesting sides seriously and those who pay more -to voters- are rewarded with being elected so that they can go and compersate themselves in Government.Ugandans dont expect much and are practically in a state of despondency and despair. The reform Agenda rubric in Uganda was crafted dishonesty of those who were pushed to the leeward side of the political cake. Issues of national good are not the preocupation of political actors in Uganda. Its about eating! Even non state actors like civil society are incompetent only running donor crafted programs and accounting to donors other than their psuedo target populations. They have failed to provide the social dynamite. Ugandans are now united by events of pleasure like football and chameleon music! The mabira escapade was a rare project that suprised me. Every Uganda now looks at politics as a souce of livelihood and not service. This is because other sectors have significantly collapsed and the only way to dip hands into unfettered basket of resources. The case for redemption lies in the emergence of a demagogue/ and action packed leader to restore the ideal status quo. For the case of many African countries this is true.
Till then.

- World
- posted on Jul 04, 08
Edgar Tayebwa

I was doing my research on press freedom in Uganda for my Constitutional Law assignment. I got to this website rather accidentally, but my!! It is amazing! All I can say is that we friends of Uganda and Africa are really behind you.We know the work of Andrew Mwenda and he happens to be one of my role models.We are with you in the struggle for freedom and equality and quality leadership in Uganda. thanks alot to all at Gelf.

- World
- posted on Jan 18, 09
John Bosco Agaba

Andrew's informed writings shows how briliant the guy is. I was a regular reader of his columns in the Daily Monitor and i would never miss his shows on Andrew Mwenda Live on KFm.

Andrew is a REAL freedom fighter. Leave alone those who work to eat up those they claim to have liberated.

Success Andrew.

- World
- posted on Feb 22, 09

It was apleviledge for USA to have people like Martin Lurther the king for America that has brought it's success. logically uganda is uder a greater opportunity to have Guys like Andrew who look at issues at a certain yard stick holding partriotism in them and am sure others like me have and are pursing it that at a certain time we shall reach there.Mwenda I adore your confidence and perfectiveness torwards a national goal.
We do here frm far corners of uganda but we listern & we do support keep up.
(Northern Iraq)

- World
- posted on Apr 08, 09
idan tumwesigye

andrew mwenda is abrilliant fellow,who has done research on almost everything,his arguments cant be contested.
im like mwenda like i like my family members and cant miss any of his talk shows and writings.
alutwa continua.

- World
- posted on Apr 14, 10
Tako Geoffrey

I am a social worker in moyo and would like to get some information on challenges faced by local media in Uganda and what challenges do the media create for the public vice verse Human Rights

- World
- posted on Jan 25, 11
Mugisha Richard

Mwenda i admire your intellect,especially your ablity to research on almost every thing,though am wondering if you are the Mwenda my OB at Mbarara High in the late 80s/90s.i wish you can send me an email on the above email adress

- World
- posted on Feb 27, 11
ekwang raymond

its great to know that we have people with big hearts in this country who are ready to lead others in times of anachy.we shall one day be out of this opressive government.Andrew we appreciate and love your work.

- World
- posted on May 05, 11
Aine Richard kyambogo University

Big Dog i reary get conviced the way you analyse issues esp political ones am more encouraged since am majuoring in Political science Mwenda i w'd like to be advised on the ways of understandig many things like you thank you Great for me Lamesh Allan and Jackie

- World
- posted on Oct 26, 11

i greatly support Mwendas efforts as in safe guarding ugandans

Article by Carl Bialik

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