Media: Uganda's Peculiar Arson Suspect

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[Africa: Media Analysis]

The Daily Monitor, Uganda's major independent daily, has an interesting approach in dealing with the story of the Kasubi Royal Tombs self-declared "arsonist."

Government mouthpiece, The New Vision, splashed the story on its front-page on Tuesday, thereby providing substantial credibility to Joseph Musoke's claim that he was the one who burned down the burial site of the Kings of Buganda. The Daily Monitor, on the other hand approaches Musoke's case, as a cautionary tale, which is wise since not all the facts are in.

At this point the person, or persons, responsible for burning down the royal burial site remain, or remains, in the shadows, notwithstanding Musoke's claims, which have yet to be established. And since The Monitor can't refute Musoke's "confession," which may or may not be true, the newspaper displays responsible and good journalism, by putting the claim in context.

The newspaper reveals that Musoke's "confession" isn't unique--In fact, he's merely one of several individuals that have come forward to take responsibility for the heinous act in recent days.

"For a fire that has ignited political tensions across the country, the blaze that brought down the historic Kasubi Tombs is one that any arsonist would want to only acknowledge at their death bed," The Monitor reports, in a clever lead, under the bylines of Andrew Bagala and Robert Mwanje, in its April 1 issue. "Yet the number of people claiming to have struck the match that caused the fire grows by the week."

The Monitor's declarative lead sheds considerable light and diminishes Musoke's credentials since readers now learn he's but one of several self-confessed criminals; which by no means rules out the possibility of him being THE ONE. It means his claims have to pass the test of competition, and with that, further scrutiny. Obviously it would have been good for everyone --including the Ugandan government, judging by dictator Yoweri Museveni's angry news conference in which he threatened to deal with anyone claiming he had a role in the arson-- If Musoke was the only suspect.

The Monitor
informs us otherwise: "The first was a suspect, only identified as Kasekende, who allegedly confessed to on-lookers soon after the inferno started on March 16, but he soon disappeared in the milling crowd. Another suspect, Robert Mubiru, was arrested a few days later but released on police bond. The latest, one Joseph Musoke, this week walked
into a police station in Nakulabye, a city suburb near the burnt tombs, and claimed responsibility for the act."

We get the sense that we shouldn't faint if a few more people step forward claiming to be the rightful arsonist in coming days.

Apparently, the claims of the earlier self-described suspects may not have been deemed credible and perhaps explains why their "confession" was not on the front-page of The New Vision.

What's special about Musoke? The Monitor reports that Uganda's police commander Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, believes "the latest suspect could be the man with ash on his hands," to borrow the newspaper's own words. The Monitor quotes Kayihura saying: “I have spoken to the man and his story is consistent and logical.....Other investigators have also talked to him and
his statement is still the same. We are taking his statement very seriously.”

There is a problem with Kayihura's statement since The New Vision's own article, in establishing a possible motive for Musoke --unless it was for foreign media consumption-- had pretty much painted Musoke as a crazed "witch doctor." It's not possible to have it both ways: Musoke is either a crazed witch doctor or a man who presents a "consistent and logical" story.

What's more, The New Vision itself seems to be treating Musoke's claim with some caution, judging by its second day story in which Musoke's estranged wife, Harriet, is quoted dismissing the husband's claims and asserting that he actually is crazy. The Vision wrote, in its March 31 issue, quoting the wife: "Besides, the woman says, he developed a mental problem more than five years ago and had escaped from Butabika mental hospital thrice. Whenever he ran mad, he turned violent and became inconsistent in his words. He attempted to lynch me one time when we still lived together.”

Of course Musoke could be a consistent and logical and crazed witch doctor all at the same time--and the actual arsonist to boot.

The Monitor further wrote: "Mr Musoke claimed he was sent by the Holy Spirit to burn what he described as satanic shrines, which the devil allegedly uses to kill people in the country. He described to detectives how he allegedly entered the tombs, struck a match and destroyed a 128-year-old Unesco World Heritage Site."

This business about "Holy Spirit" and "witch doctor" reminds one -- too conveniently it seems-- of the attributes Uganda government officials routinely ascribe to Joseph Kony, and, pardon the expression, seems tailor-made for gullible foreign media consumption.

So, based on the reporting, where does one place Musoke?

"Not everyone is convinced, however, not least of all, Buganda Kingdom, which has called for an independent inquiry into the fire," The Monitor added. "Charles Peter Mayiga, Buganda Kingdom’s information and cabinet affairs minister said yesterday that they are watching the story with interest and a healthy dose of skepticism."

Mayiga is obviously a man with a mastery of diplomatic language, as when he tells The Monitor:  “The story is still in its infancy and has a lot of loopholes...It has a lot of gaps to be believed but the Kingdom is carrying out independent investigations about the same issue. We are waiting to see how the story develops.”

Translation: This story is preposterous.

Given the magnitude of the crime and the political combustibility it's ignited, it would be in everyone's interest to have Musoke available for interviewing by Ugandan journalists. Needless to say, it would also be in the interest of all, including the government, if Musoke's health while in police custody does not suddenly take a turn for the worse.

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