The Rise, Rise and Inevitably Imminent Demise of the Hitherto Mighty Red Pepper Tabloid

Red Pepper's Marketing and Advertising Director Arinaitwe Rugyendo being taken back to Luzira

The hard-fisted swoop down on Red Pepper, the tabloid blockbuster that has seen it banished and its sister publications off the streets for close to a month now was a business coup long in the making.

It wasn’t about one story. As Red Pepper’s brand experimented and expanded from a weekly to daily with several offshoot products, it made many innumerable friends and linkages but also rubbed the high and low in the wrong places because its brand was conspicuous and prying.

While the particular story now in contention and which has landed the directors and editors a place at the dreaded Nalufeenya and Luzira jails may be as it is, there is a behind-the-scenes plot to forever scuttle Red Pepper to nothingness.

The raucous plan was hatched before these events by news subjects who felt eternally offended and vowed to avenge themselves by tearing into the flesh of the entity to fill their tummies, in complicity with mafia barons. I am aware that in the past some individuals have vowed that Red Pepper bosses would “stop a bullet” in one way or the other. Uganda may be a relatively stable country but the work of journalists, particularly those in the peculiar genre as practiced by tabloids, is a hazardous vocation. Practitioners live at the edge of time.

The plan is to occasion a financial melt-down on the company till it runs insolvent. It’s said that a number of individuals have won dubious cases against the publication and consequently, they demand sizeable monetary damages awarded by court. The exact figure is unknown but the scavengers calculate that it must be in billions. They are quietly seeking out the awardees to harden their stance in demanding for payment.

Red Pepper’s MD Richard Tusiime (2nd R) and Finance Director Johnson Musinguzi (2nd L) at Buganda Road Court after being remanded to Luzira

When the publications complex was sealed off that shady Monday, November 17th 2017, only the buildings were left intact. Everything else was hollowed out; from computers to phones, servers and files were carted off. The sensitivity of electronic gadgets and their handling by charged, muscular security personnel suggests that most of them were vandalized and cannot be used again. On top of that, the likelihood of being fitted with spy devices is a good guess. Replacing them will cost some good money.

In the absence of normal human activity the owners of the place and staff, nobody knows what the state of the complex is like and how much it would take to return it to functional condition again. I am sure by the time of the swoop, many advertisers had placed orders. They will be looking to settle their accounts for work not done or breach of contract.

Red Pepper’s plight is a fight of a generation than no media house has ever experienced in this country. There may be an example or two in the outside world but in Uganda, nothing has ever been seen before. That’s what happens when something rises out of the ashes and blooms into a mahogany of the media industry. I can’t count how many persons I have met who are always inquisitive as to the ownership of the publication. Usually, they are armed with fat conspiracy theories linking the brand to big shots in the public domain.

It’s that mystery that now complicates the fate of the team now freezing at Luzira. Nobody seems to know where the case is headed and what’s at stake. Meanwhile, a day in jail is at close range to a day in hell. It’s not fun. Families are shaken, friends are upset, activists are up in arms, and industry players are waiting for their turn.

The Rwanda story was not the first headline to shake the market. Rwanda has always featured in the pages of the pepper in good and difficult times and more shocking reports probably never get to the newsroom. Soon after the swoop, President Museveni, one of the three big wigs ostensibly offended by the report in focus, was pictured at ease and in hearty discussion with President Kagame at the inauguration of Kenya’s H.E Uhuru Kenyatta. The two blood brothers could never have been closer than they were on that day. When the two are at peace, no one in between should exaggerate anything but in Red Pepper’s case, there are midgets who have been waiting for a time to wedge in and cry more than the so claimed bereaved.

Red Pepper Business Development Director James Mujuni (2nd R) being taken back to Luzira. Behind are editors Francis Tumusiime and Bernerd Byarabaha aka BenB

The cases may proceed but randy hands are at play. In the media world, it’s normal business having cases in court but while reporting news goes on.

The time Namanve has been out of work, the streets are silent and news business is slow. There is silent mourning but the hyenas are waiting to see if anyone will come to the rescue and if no one of “significance” does, they will move into the next phase of making sure the publication winds up and gets dumped on the heap of history. They don’t care what service the public has reaped, they don’t care for the vacuum at the height of serious political activity, they don’t care for the social police role and they lack the vision of President Museveni who is one person, other than being globally acclaimed at optimally managing the army, also knows how best to work with the media.

As the state pursues justice, the process ought to be free of interference and arm-twisting from wrong quarters because they have planned this for a long time and they are now frantic. In fact, they wish to replicate the brand under their own names and that’s why they are in celebration… in the meantime, watch the space!

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Robert is a journalist with over a decade under his belt. He has been a Parliamentary correspondent, Editor and Political analyst on tv and radio