EIGHTY Seven upcountry journalists in Uganda are at the centre of a national debate on media ethics, after details emerged indicating that the government had been secretly given them military training at their request, writes Dennis Itumbi for journalism.co.za.

Though media ethics are the principal axis of the debate,  political science and media experts in the country argue that the move could be President Yoweri Museveni's political card for the upcoming general elections.

"In fact when I read about it, and knew that it was leaked through an email sent to the wrong hands, it immediately struck me that Museveni knows that in the upcoming 2011 elections the biggest opponent will not be the opposition but the community radio stations," Fredrick Ssempebwa a political analyst told journalism.co.za in a telephone interview.

The 87 were secretly smuggled into the National Leadership Institute – for Propaganda and Military training.

"There is no question about it, although the government wants everyone to believe that its the journalists who asked for it, it is clear that the State was a willing partner transporting them to the institute and were it not for the small fight over allowances and the email sent to Red Pepper (a Ugandan Tabloid) by mistake that would have remained a secret, its also a shame for the profession that is supposed to keep off the romantic affair with the government," Andrew Mwenda an outspoken Ugandan journalist and magazine owner said.

Both media and political analysts see a systematic approach by the Museveni government to tame the media before the elections.

"Military training was taking the game that started by handing the national journalist union cash publicly and posing for photographs with journalists, then the closure and selective re-opening of radio stations and now the secret training, its an old strategy of rewarding and punishing, divide and rule, since the radio stations unlike the newspapers talk to the peasants and Museveni knows it, its a strategy," said Ssempebwa.

According to the government, it is the journalists who approached Col. Moses Rwakitarate (air force chief of staff) and requested the training.

Kyankwanzi is a propaganda education centre run by military but admits all sorts of people for political and military education. MPs from the ruling NRM have been trained by the same institution.

At pass out, recruits including civilians are allowed to carry back home army uniforms they have been using during the course.

When the journalists through an unknown association approached Rwakitarate, he consulted the Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) Gen. Aronda Nyakairima who gave him the go ahead. After obtaining permission in early August 2009, Rwakitarate organized army green buses and carried the journalists to the vast and isolated institute.

It is Sunday Monitor that exposed the event with a story titled ‘Journalists get military drills’.

Red Pepper reported that the course had prematurely ended over a cash row. According to the Red Pepper story the fallout started with the arrival of District Internal Security Organization (DISO) operatives. 

The operatives were housed in the same rooms with the journalists.

But because they are employees of Internal Security Organization (ISO) they were entitled to a daily allowance of Shs 50,000 ($25). Journalists were supposed to be given only $50 at the end of the course.

When they DISOs told them that for them they were earning per day, the journalists got upset and engaged the military in an angry exchange leading to their humiliating expulsion from the course three days before the end.

The new debate has emerged after two bills were tabled in parliament one against homosexuality and the other on ponography, when security ministers divulged details of the trainings and questioned the ethical position of the country's media.

Journalists have in turn responded saying they were beyond reproach and that the training was a secret affair that did not go through newsroom approval.