Lessons from King Leopold’s Ghost on Uganda’s chameleon journalists

In Adam Hochschild’s ‘‘King Leopold’s Ghost,’’ there is a chapter titled ‘‘Journalists won’t give you receipts.’’

King Leopold II was the shrewd, deceptive and megalomaniac King of Belgium whose barbaric misrule of the Congo left, according to estimates, 10 million Congolese dead and countless more limbless.

A pretentious Leopold had in the 18th century scramble for colonies in Africa by European powers masqueraded as a humanitarian, hoodwinking Europe and  America into believing he was on a ‘‘civilising’’ mission in the Congo which he ironically renamed the ‘‘Congo Free State.’’

Using humanitarianism as a pretext, Leopold set up and entrenched arguably the cruelest ever colonial system for the exploitation of the Congo which he governed as his personal estate.

Leopold used an army of journalists, editors, explorers, lobbyists, lawyers and parliamentarians to spin the Belgian, European and American public by giving a false and glowing account of events in the Congo burying underneath rot of genocidal proportion.

But towards the turn of the 19th century a movement against Leopold began to pick steam as missionaries, independent writers and travelers in the Congo began to tell accounts starkly different from that of Leopold and his agents.

In response, Leopold intensified on his propaganda, hiring and bribing more ‘‘useful idiots’’ and setting up fake commissions to airbrush his murderous image. As a consequence, the European public began to notice that the position of newspapers and journalists who had previously been critical of Leopold began to ‘‘mysteriously change’’, writes Hochschild.

Why is this aspect of Leopold’s story important for the Uganda public? Not a single day passes without I coming across lamentations online from a disturbed Ugandans who can’t come to terms with the fact that journalist they previously held in high regard are now unrecognizable from their past.

‘‘If your past met your present, they would fight,’’ is a common jab from the lamenters aimed at the chameleon journalists.

No Ugandan journalist has taken as much flack as Andrew Mwenda for his change of views (he is currently the subject of an online tiff war after he called Kizza Besigye supporters uncharitable names on radio).

Previously a hard critic of President Museveni, Mwenda today is seen by many as part of the pro- Museveni propaganda machinery.  To his credit, Mwenda has countered critics by arguing that he is not bound by dogma when faced with new evidence. On that he often adds that he has ‘‘grown old and wiser.’’ But this is insufficient.

The example of Leopold’s use of journalists and writers to spin is meant to demonstrate that there is historical and even contemporary precedent to what Mwenda has done.  And in most of the cases, the stated reason for change of views is not always the real reason.

If Mwenda wants to be a reputable ‘‘public intellectual’’ he should declare and answer ethical questions around his business and other dealings with the establishment in Kampala and Kigali so his commentary on public affairs can be put to proper context.

The change in public perception about Leopold II in Europe and America was hastened by technology which enabled cheap mass production of newspapers.

‘‘King Leopold’s amazing attempt to influence our Congress exposed…full text of his paid agents in Washington,’’ screamed a headline in a newspaper owned by William Randolph Hearst’s, an American publisher famous for ‘‘yellow journalism’’.

Without a doubt, if Uganda’s chameleon journalists are to ever have a spectacular fall, there is no guessing that it will be played out on social media.  It is on social media where monies received without receipts could play out.  Perhaps this explains the fixation on ‘‘mobs on social media’’ by chameleon journalists.