Charles Etukuri arrest and the dilemma in Ugandan newsrooms

Charles Etukuri arrest and the dilemma in Ugandan newsrooms
Charles Etukuri (L) and John Kakande (R) at the New Vision after he (Etukuri) was released by the ISO operatives Feb 19,2018 The journalist has been accused of spying for the state

More than a month after Charles Etukuri, a senior journalist at the Vision Group, was allegedly kidnapped and held incommunicado for a week, there is still debate about the conduct of journalists when covering security agencies.

Etukuri, a crime reporter with New Vision, was on February 13 picked up by what he later said were operatives of the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) at the Vision Group’s office on First Street, Industrial Area.

The arrest came after Etukuri had written a story about the death of foreign nationals in Kampala, in which the police was laying blame on ISO’s doorsteps. Two foreign nationals, Sebastien Andreas from Sweden and Terasvouri Toumas from Finland had been found dead in their respective rooms in two different top Kampala hotels.

Upon his release, a week later, Etukuri said he had been held by ISO in a safe house in Kyengera, a suburb in Kampala. His release came shortly after court issued an order directing ISO director Col Fred Kaka Bagyenda to produce Etukuri dead or alive. Etukuri was dropped at New Vision, the same place he was kidnapped from.

Etukuri was later quoted as saying; “They believed I was deeply involved in the matter and that I had closely worked with the killers. That I knew much more than what I had written.”

As journalists, civil society and politicians discussed Etukuri’s arrest, however, the debate kept touching on his personal character. Some said he was combining his work as a journalist with some “covert” activities as a state spy.

Some even suggested Etukuri was spying on fellow journalists. Nevertheless, a last minute call by the media and human rights activists led to Etukuri’s freedom, as many journalists wrote “today Etukuri, tomorrow somebody else”.

Journalist and researcher Angello Izama posted on the Uganda Journalists Facebook page questioning whether Etukuri’s personal record should matter to the question of how he was being treated and whether journalists should only defend those they like or trust among others.

Julie Nabwire, another senior journalist said she was concerned about Etukuri’s whereabouts.

“He may have been misguided at some point in his career but let those serve as a lesson to all those in active journalism. Some sources cannot be your friends and make you put colleagues at risk! Do your work not their work,” she argued.

Taddewo William Senyonyi said no matter the accusations against Etukuri, he stood with him.

“I am not saying he is clean, but we share a lot when it comes to farming and development related stories. He should really be produced in court and the law given a chance to take its course”.

Joe Elunya, also a journalist who once worked with Uganda Radio Network, raised serious ethical questions.

“To what extent must a journalist relate with the source? It’s a serious ethical question that shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. Oftentimes I see journalists including those on this forum relating with sources to the extent that it crosses the ethical line,” he said.

In the journalism circles, there’s been information that Etukuri managed social media accounts for the recently sacked police chief Gen Kale Kayihura and other top government officials. This is after he once posted, and immediately removed, what appeared to be Kayihura’s speech in the first person narration on his Facebook wall, something that made many suspect he was Kayihura’s account operator.

Cover blown

Just a day after Etukuri was arrested, a former Vision Group journalist, Fortunate Ahimbisibwe, published a long post on his Facebook wall explaining that he is the one who recruited Etukuri into state intelligence work as a spy.

Ahimbisibwe, who appears to have since fallen out with the government, argued that he and Etukuri were living double lives as an extra source of income.

“I started carrying out some ‘assignments’ for some of Uganda’s intelligence agencies. I was young and naïve, I look back and say, some of this, I shouldn’t have done,” Ahimbisibwe said.

He said it is on one of his assignments that he recruited Etukuri for a highly sensitive job, which would also be his first assignment. The assignment involved capturing an army dissident.

In 2008, Andrew Mwenda, the CEO of The Independent news magazine, accused Etukuri of spying on fellow journalists and working with the state security agencies to have an army deserter, a one Private Masaba, arrested. It is not clear whether this is the mission Ahimbisibwe alluded to in his narrative.

However, it is not only Etukuri and Ahimbisibwe who have been said to have links with the intelligence. Reverend Captain Isaac Bakka, a veteran soldier and journalist attached to Bornfree Technologies Network (BTN), a television broadcaster based in Arua district, went missing on October 9, 2017.

He was produced in Luzira Maximum Prison on February 14, secretly charged with treason, and misprision of treason and remanded. The details of Bakka’s case remain concealed to-date. Just like in the Etukuri case, both the police and ISO denied knowledge of his whereabouts.

It is not uncommon for journalists or the media to raise concern about spies in the newsrooms. Charles Odoobo Bichachi, the executive editor of Daily Monitor says espionage is a big challenge in the newsrooms.

Bichachi recalls an incident in 2008 about government safe houses.

“I encountered it very closely for the first time some 10 years ago when we were working on a project about people who escaped from safe houses. We were trying to locate the safe houses and also tell the story of what the escapees went through. And one of our journalists went and tipped the security, they wanted our recordings, they raided our offices at The Independent, I was the editor and we were charged with possessing seditious material,” Bichachi recalls.

Bichachi was arrested together with Independent magazine proprietor Andrew Mwenda and journalist John Njoroge. Bichachi says spies in newsrooms is something very undesirable and unfortunate but it is something that happens.

“Sometimes we are in the newsrooms and we are discussing story angles, and someone calls you telling you about what you are discussing and what you shouldn’t do. Sometimes editors are told you said this about this story, so obviously somebody internally has leaked the information,” he laments.

Bichachi explains the dilemma newsrooms find themselves in: “What happens is that they will push those stories that favour certain people, and not put those stories through the rigorous checks. Or sometimes you will find that a journalist who is working for an agency or an individual, will not do the story; they will say there was no story when they were assigned, so you get that the story is everywhere but your journalists can’t find it.”

According to Bichachi, such journalists should not be entertained in newsrooms.

The New Vision stands with Etukuri

The New Vision maintains that by being close to security agencies as alleged by some, Etukuri was only performing his daily journalism duties. In an Interview with this publication, New Vision news editor John Kakande said their major concern is whether their journalist is able to bring in the story.

Kakande says as far as ethics are concerned, Etukuri’s stories do not raise any concerns, adding that he used his contacts and position to get vital information. On information that the reporter also has been working as a spy, as Ahimbisiwe revealed, Kakande said all those are unfounded allegations.

Asked if they have taken interest in the matter, he said The New Vision has hundreds of journalists and they cannot start investigating all rumours against all journalists.

“If Charles was or is close to Kale [Kayihura] or not is immaterial. What we want, [and] what we look at as the media, is the nature of the story you have brought. How many stories have we published against Kayihura?…That is the nature of business we’re dealing in.

There are those who can access Kayihura probably there may be need when you want to talk to him and perhaps Charles could talk to him for you. There may be others talking to other security agents. There are those people who trust them. Others talk to them in confidence. How is someone going to tell you something if they don’t trust you and how does one build trust? All of us that is what we do,” Kakande added.

Charles Etukuri arrest and the dilemma in Ugandan newsrooms

Kakande, however, says many other media houses have spies as journalists. He says the trend in the media is that you need to get close to your sources, adding that personal relations with security sources does not necessarily raise professional issues but gets one a good story.

“There are reporters armed with pistols [in newsrooms], were they dismissed, you never heard of them? Were they dismissed? I knew of reporters who were very close to very senior people in the army and intelligence. Were they ever dismissed?

Because does it in itself present a professional issue? That is the question. The mere question that I’m a friend, if I’m the friend of the army spokesperson and he calls me for a cup of coffee in itself does it constitute an unethical issue? To me no!,” said Kakande.

New Vision ethical guide specifies that it is unethical for journalists to be on the payrolls of politicians, businesspersons, and organisations among others.

The ethical guide also says journalists shall declare a conflict of interest when it arises and request not to be involved in gathering, processing, publishing and broadcasting content.

Media experts weigh in

Prof Monica Chibita, the head of mass communication department at Uganda Christian University, who also doubles as Vision Group board chairperson, says journalists should not use their privilege to gather intelligence information for government.

Chibita also said it is unethical for journalists to double as security agents. She says there are clear ways to do investigative journalism and there is no need to masquerade. Asked whether as a board chairperson of Vision Group they are concerned about the alleged involvement of Etukuri, she said they are concerned but could not give details.

“One, we need to deal with the motivation. If your motivation is to earn money by pretending to be somebody else gathering intelligence and so on feeding the authorities, no. It is unethical. I think journalists can do investigative journalism, there are ethical ways to do it and those ways are known and the ways of not to do it are known in the journalism fraternity. So there is no reason as to masquerade as a journalist as you do intelligence work for whatever agency,” she said.

Dr George Lugalambi, a veteran journalist and media expert who once headed the department of journalism at Makerere University, says a situation of having a journalist operating like a double-agent creates doubt among the audience even if there are only suspicions.

He says a journalist can maintain a professional relationship with a source even though they are covering a beat. He says the editors should not only look at the story, but the confidence of the public when the story is delivered.

“It also impacts on his ethical standards and profession because if you have a person who can’t execute his duties as assigned to him by the editor it compromises the editorial standards of the newspaper, the editorial content of the electronic media house,” said Lugalambi.

Lugalambi says the claim that some people work as journalists and spies for lack of money is hollow, arguing that there are better ways through which journalists can get extra money. He says taking money from sources compromises a journalist.

Timothy Sibasi, a journalist says the implication of being a spy and a journalist is that one loses balance and objectivity in their reporting. He says in many cases journalists have complained about being spied on by colleagues.

Existing path

Emmy Allio, then an experienced political and investigative reporter, walked from the New Vision newsroom to become a deputy director of External Security Organisation (ESO) serving until 2012 when he left the spy agency amidst reports that his life was in danger. He was later appointed director for investment under Operation Wealth Creation.

Teddy Seezi Cheeye, a fallen journalist and publisher of The Uganda Confidential, put on hold his career in mid 2000s to join ISO as director for economic monitoring.

He would end up in Luzira prison where he spent six years on corruption charges. He was released in early 2017, revived his news magazine but died in a fatal hit-and-run accident last month.

In the early 1980s, Nelson Okuku abandoned his job as a political reporter at The Star and Ngabo newspapers to join the National Resistance Army rebels as a spy against the Uganda People’s Congress.

“I did this so secretly that not even my bosses got wind of it,” Okuku would later narrate.

Internationally, some security agencies have used journalists as spies. Operation Mockingbird, for instance, was a campaign by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to influence media in the 1950s. The organization recruited leading American journalists into a network that would help fit the narrative of CIA in the media.

Many scholars rightly argue that journalists and intelligence services share a common interest – information – and that the relationship between the two is an enduring one. Both collect information but for different audiences and purposes.

While spies are in the business of secrecy, the business of journalists is that of exposure, including watching over the intelligence agencies. Herein lies the line that should separate the two, a line that journalists ought to observe at all times.