In what onlookers see as a push to control the media, the office of the government Chief Whip (GCW) sponsored a retreat for parliamentary journalists in Jinja over the weekend.
The retreat, at Nile Resort hotel in Jinja, comes a month after government directed all radio stations and television stations to provide four hours of free airtime every week.
According to the deputy NRM caucus chairperson David Bahati, this retreat, a follow-up of two earlier breakfast meetings with scribes, was requested by the leadership of the Uganda Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA).
“It is intended to bridge the gap between government and journalists, it will help us to open up doors of the government chief whip and journalists in a more relaxed manner,” Bahati told The Observer on Thursday.
“It will offer an opportunity for the GCW and the NRM caucus leadership to reflect on the performance of the government and the party in the House.”
The retreat had initially been planned for early this month but was delayed to allow NRM Secretary General and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi to attend.
The initial program, according to Bahati, had been designed to begin with morning drills “conducted by the party’s usual instructors” from the Kyankwanzi-based leadership institute. The scribes would then get lectures from experts from within government and the media fraternity.
Among the experts that had been lined up was the Permanent Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister, Christine Guwatudde Kintu, and the executive director of the Uganda Media Centre, Ofwono Opondo.
Others were Chief Whip Justine Kasule Lumumba, Mbabazi and some other party leaders. Also on the agenda were presentations from three political analysts picked from the civil society and from UPPA according to Agnes Nandutu, the UPPA president.
However, The Observer was told that journalists rejected the inclusion of military-style drills by the Kyankwanzi crew. The programme was later on revised, with organisers dropping the morning drills, and retreat’s duration being reduced by a day.
Nandutu confirmed to us that the retreat was, indeed, requested by UPPA, wanting a longer interaction with government officials.
“They have always complained about bad reporting and that we ignore them and cover the opposition …” Nandutu said.
“We want them to know their weaknesses, it is going to be a moment of truth where they will tell us and we will tell them.”
During the previous two breakfast meetings, the party leaders and the journalists discussed the establishment of a planned UPPA Savings and Credit Cooperative Society (Sacco).
Mbabazi pledged to fund the Sacco. However, each member is required to pay a sign-up fee of Shs 50,000 to join the Sacco. However, there are mixed feelings among parliamentary scribes over the retreat with some fearing that it is intended to gag them.
“What people are failing to understand is that the main objective of this retreat is for them to start influencing the way we write our stories,” said a radio journalist who preferred not to be named.
Another journalist concurred, telling us he feared that the party in government could exploit the fact that most journalists are poorly remunerated, and sweet-talk them into reporting in its favour.
But Yunus Kyewalyanga, a journalist with NBS radio, disagrees.
“There is nothing wrong with them [government] taking us for the retreat. I don’t see anything wrong with it, I will attend it and
others to come,” he said.