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MPs summon editors over ‘negative’ stories

Speaker Rebecca Kadaga

Parliament yesterday issued summons to news editors of four media organisations to explain what MPs term as “unbalanced reporting” about the legislature.

In a letter dated September 28, addressed to the news editor of The Observer, the chairman of the committee on rules, privileges and discipline, Kenneth Ongalo, said “we need to clarify on your publications regarding parliament’s expenditure during the Ugandan North American Association (UNAA) conference in Boston, Massachusetts.”

The news editor is scheduled to appear before the committee on Wednesday, October 5. We have been told that editors of three other media organisations, Daily Monitor, Red Pepper and Uganda Radio Network (URN) have also been invited.

The summonses were prompted by complaints from Speaker Rebecca Kadaga and other MPs, which spilled onto the floor of parliament during a heated plenary session on September 15.

The legislators were irked by media coverage about their perks, notably the Shs 150m car grant, the Shs 68m burial expenses per MP, and the trips to the Ugandan North American Association (UNAA) convention in Boston.

During the session, Kadaga proposed that errant editors be summoned before parliament’s committee on rules, privileges and discipline. Within the committee, there has been debate as to whether the members have the mandate to summon editors given that their core duty relates to fellow MPs.

While Ongalo’s letter stipulates that the meeting with the editors aims at “clarifying” on some is- sues, sources told us that it is likely to be more of ‘interrogation’ than ‘interaction’.

“We want to know the sources of these stories be- cause we are aware that so many forces are fighting parliament,” a member of the committee told us.

For The Observer, MPs are concerned about the story; Parliament shuts down for USA trip, which ran on September 2. MPs say the story’s claim that 78 MPs travelled for the UNAA convention is not true (the paper quoted the figure from other media sources, reporting that parliament had said only 30 MPs travelled).

URN, too, is faulted for its coverage of the UNAA convention with MPs claiming it got things wrong. Regarding Daily Monitor, sources told us, the MPs want to know the motive behind the story about MPs’ burial expenses, and another where it was claimed that Kadaga’s hotel in Kamuli had been selected to host an international meeting inappropriately.

For Red Pepper, MPs are not happy about its sister paper Kamunye’s coverage of the aftermath of the pig demonstration at parliament recently. They single out one edition where the Luganda tabloid ran photo montages of some MPs on the front page, their noses depicted as those of pigs.

The editors of the affected media houses have criticized parliament’s move, saying it is unwarranted.

“I think parliament is making a mountain out of an anthill,” said James Tumusiime, managing editor of The Observer.
“If MPs are sufficiently aggrieved to want to escalate this matter, the better approach would be to go to court; otherwise, their move seems to suggest that somehow because of their position, they are beyond criticism.”

Charles Odoobo Bichachi, the executive editor of Daily Monitor, added yesterday that while parliament is at liberty to summon any member of the public on certain matters, in this particular case MPs have overstepped their mandate.

“My understanding is that the committee is meant for parliament to discipline its members, and not ordinary members of the public. We do not think that we broke nay law in our coverage but if parliament thinks we did, they should go to court,” Bichachi said.

Wilson Kaija, the editor- in-chief of URN, pointed out that while parliament was quick to say they had reported falsehoods, it had not provided the ‘correct’ version of events.

“I think it is better for them to appeal to the media council which was set up to mediate between the media and the public,” Kaija said.

Prof Joe Oloka Onyango of Makerere law school recently criticized parliament’s move to summon editors, saying journalists are mere messengers.

In an opinion published in The Observer on September 23, Onyango argued: “The fact is that the media is only reporting on what parliament itself has decided: to reward themselves with numerous unjustified perks and allowances, especially when teachers, health workers and ordinary Ugandans are all being told to tighten their belts. Instead of listening to this message, the reaction of the speaker and our honourable MPs is not only to hurl all blame and insults at those who are the carriers of the message, but to also attempt to humiliate and ultimately castrate the messenger.”

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