By Denis Jjuuko

I once sat infront of a famous politician on a trip. He was reading the day’s copy of the Daily Monitor. The paper was so interesting that he would loudly giggle and sometimes clap in excitement. I had the same copy of the paper and I had read it cover to cover so I kept wondering what was so exciting. I decided to move around and ended up behind him so I could see the story that was tickling him. The curiosity of a journalist! Inside the Daily Monitor, he had inserted a copy of the Red Pepper. And you now know that he was enjoying Mr Hyena — an explicit column on sexual escapades of its author. I think Mr. Hyena is or was fiction!

I am also told of a Bishop who always asked his newspaper deliveryman whether he had secured all the papers that were published every Friday. Those were the days when Red Pepper was a weekly. The man of God would insist on his Red Pepper without mentioning it by name.

You see, Red Pepper started as a tabloid that mainly focused on sex. People of a certain status in society feared to be seen reading it publicly hence the insertion in mainstream papers or the pretense that every newspaper printed on a Friday must be bought.

The Red Pepper owners I believe had seen a gap in the Ugandan market. The Chic magazine, the real first popular tabloid in the NRM era had closed shop after publishing a photo of a woman who seemed to have sat exposing her knickers (don’t laugh these were the 1990s, knickers collapsed a business. Of recent, underwear didn’t stop a man becoming a government spox). The knickers episode of the 1990s could have traumatized its owner to the extent of becoming a pastor. Spice magazine, another tabloid, didn’t celebrate many birthdays, if any.

However, Bukedde was selling a lot and one of the most popular pullouts in it was Ssenga or sex talk. Richard Tusiime who would later become the CEO of Red Pepper had become a blue-eyed boy at Vision Group as editor of Orumuri. Orumuri had a popular sex talk pullout and I am told was selling as a hot cake in Mbarara and all parts of western Uganda. Bukedde and Orumuri published in local languages.

The English audience didn’t have an alternative as Peter Ssematimba had since quit Capital FM where he had a very popular Ssenga program. Ssematimba would end up at CBS FM, a station owned by Buganda Kingdom and therefore could not be seen to be promoting ‘immorality.’ Tusiime and company must have seen a gap and exploited it.

However, Red Pepper faced many challenges mainly from the moralists who are not in short supply in Uganda. They wanted it banned for sowing immorality in Ugandans (even when the moralists themselves were actually reading and enjoying it behind closed doors). Red Pepper would provide a case for several friends when writing their MA theses. And colleagues outside the country would request me to send them copies of the tabloid. That is how famous Red Pepper had become.

I don’t know whether the moral group campaigns eventually had an impact on Red Pepper as they started replacing sex content with political stories on the cover page. Advertisers cannot be overlooked either. They kept Mr Hyena and sex talk but they went big on politics just like all the other papers. Eventually, they started another paper where sex content was freely published.

Today, the Red Pepper is under siege and its owners and editors are in prison facing treason charges. The crime being the publication of a story that the Ugandan government was planning to topple a regime in a neighboring country. Some people called the article reckless and others asked the government to ensure the editors rot in jail. It is actually ironical that the Ugandan government can prefer treason charges against the journalist after such a story however reckless it might have been. In 1990, Uganda military generals invaded a country and toppled a regime in 1994. The Uganda Peoples Defense Forces joined rebels in DRC in the late 1990s and toppled Mobutu’s regime. From there, they helped a regime in South Sudan stay in power.

Anyway, the issue for me is freedom of the press and freedom of expression. The Red Pepper as reckless as they can be are good for our journalism and Uganda’s democracy. They publish stories no other media can ever publish and some of those stories have ended up true. So that alternative voice regardless of how unethical it sometimes can be is good for the sake of our democracy. I say this fully aware that like a lot of people I have been a victim of some of their unethical journalism in the past. Members of my family have been as well.

Yet if we are going to be democratic we must listen to those we don’t agree with. We must also accept that sometimes they will get it wrong. What we needed was to ensure that Red Pepper learns to say “a mea culpa.” However, because Red Pepper was used by some elements in government to attack those they don’t agree with, they too grew wings and started referring themselves as “mighty.” They rarely if ever say sorry whenever they get it wrong. And that is wrong on their part. In the US, Donald Trump is always fighting CNN and other media houses calling them fake news. He fights his wars on mainly Twitter instead of closing down these media houses and sending the editors and owners in jail. Trump, as uncouth as he might be, he simply can’t throw his enemies potential or real in jail. That is the beauty of a democracy.

Democracy means accepting alternative views. It doesn’t mean that the media should be unethical and publish whatever they want. Not at all. I believe, like all media houses, there is a lot Red Pepper doesn’t publish. So journalists including those at the Red Pepper must at all times strive to publish the truth. They must not be used to settle personal vendettas or to use their positions to extort from their sources.

But we must learn tolerance, use just laws to bring the media to book where they completely refuse to listen to the other sides of the story instead of preferring charges that will eventually not stand.

Now should we celebrate Red Pepper’s downfall and wish its owners to rot in jail? We should not because the bigger issue is the democracy of our country. And without a free and independent press, we can kiss democracy goodbye.

This #OutToLuch post was prompted by a request from my friend and media colleague Diana Kagere Mugerwa.