Defending Tamale Mirundi and his “right to abuse”
When the Communications Commission, Uganda’s thought and speech police, sought to banish from the airwaves ex-journalist and political hatchet man, Mr. Tamale Mirundi it seemed for a while his career was done.
Mirundi is a rare talent.
For the last 13 years he was employed at State House as President Yoweri Museveni’s press secretary. His real job: he rarely put out a press release, was to verbally harass the president’s detractors, a task he threw himself at like an Olympic athlete.
His sacking was immediately denounced by the media as a violation of his rights and an unnecessary attack on press freedom. This is not unusual. The media in Uganda has had to fight hard to maintain its space. Not surprising either was the turn in Mr. Mirundi’s fortunes – from presidential barking dog to just another street dog albeit one with a pedigree for coarse sound bites and violent prose.
But there were other unusual goings-on worth the salvaging from the stinky pit latrine that is Uganda’s electoral politics – with its scandalous treatment of the constitutional rights of citizens both ordinary and those benighted with the hubris and money of the powerful – like Mirundi.
Laudable amongst them were the public displays affection for free speech by people who normally cheer the boot on the neck of journalists. We thank them. In singing from the same hymnbook that we have, even if they will later proselytize the right of the state to beat up journalists, they understood the investment was worth one of their own.
As Tamale Mirundi was racking up a rap-sheet for the most political insults in November, a journalist was shownbleeding from a face wound following yet another violent application of the law against public assembly by what Ugandans have come to accept is a partisan police.
Enock Kugonza, the police claimed was a victim not of a gunshot – the police are known to fire live rounds, but a stone-thrower. Do the moral math here.
Its possible that before he was asked to shut up Mirundi may have spat one of those caustic Mirundi-isms at Kugonza’s fate. Consider this; in his defence of Mirundi, Uganda’s deputy head of mission at the United Nations, who worked with him, attacked UCC for shitting on the spirit of the Uganda constitution.
Almost five years ago Ambassador Kintu Nyago told religious opinion leaders to stop commenting on politics. Then he argued that the current government was great because at least it did not kill its critics.
This is progress in my book.
One of the lessons of the defense of Tamale Mirundi is the acceptance, by way of support for the ex-presidential spokesman, of certain types of truth telling. In particular why Ugandan society puts up with the vulgar as a natural defence against the bullshit of polite society. It is the courtesy extended to priests, grandmothers and grand uncles; the truth equivalent of bitter medicine. This tolerance is best seen over the years as the triumph of the tabloid as an indispensable asset in defending free speech and pushing its boundaries. Uganda has some of the most rabid tabloids that deploy shock and irreverence not only to light topics such as celebrity scandals but to political subjects and objects too.
While rarely credited as a vanguard of press freedom, tabloids are in fact the ground zero of the truth to power poetry in Uganda. They do this by extreme hyperbole on every subject, busting taboos and myths, about what is acceptable. In do doing they harass high society, which speaks an in-bred language of acquiescence to power that, is secretly driven by fear and worry over privileges.
Many tabloids both print and online also represent through their extremes the extent to which Ugandans can tolerate that which irritates, shocks and forces one to question not just one’s own values – but the uncomfortable truths about the society beyond the gate.
In a country where Groupthink is always lurking in the corner, driven over the last two decades by the dominance of one political group, tabloids and their spokesmen/women throw a lifeline to plurality and diversity even when they are wrong and untidy. The recent passing of so-called moral laws is an example of this threat to diversity. It may explain how despite the Corinthian venality and debauchery of power today – a cabinet minister can suggest women who get raped are to blame if they were dressed in a mini-skirt and get away with it. Could this be because a conspiracy of silence protects what power can do and grants the same power the right to speak – for the rest of us?
It’s a difficult position to defend the right to give offense. But that’s the point. Those who reject this right often claim a high moral ground to do so. Even where it is well intended it is a road that leads to complacent citizens that are taught to obey power even when it is abusive.
The Tamale’s of this world may ridicule power but its an art that keeps power humble and honest in a world where too much false respect is given to big men and big, often false, themes on our collective future. There are so many examples of these accepted falsehoods especially in the political season when the future is fictionalized even more unashamedly by those self-proclaimed saviors and martyrs in party colors and big cars.