Uganda’s dire need for media accountability

November 20, 2010

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KAMPALA, UGANDA   Time for class. Time for thinking. Time to cut through the nonsense of vegetable journalism.

Yes, we need to not only make sense of the recent deaths of Alex Kisakye and Harriet Atugonza, two young Ugandans who perished in a suspected murdersuicide. We ought to make sense of some of the reports that followed.

Kisakye and Atugonza who were students of the Uganda Christian University (UCU) died recently in a suspicious fire in Kisakye’s hostel room.

It is a story filled with buzz: about a broken relationship leading to two horrific deaths at an institution known for its moral standards.

Uganda’s mainstream press gave details with balance and rightful concern. The New Vision even opened its pages to several commentaries from a UCU staff
related to Atugonza.

But what followed in Uganda’s sensational press is a wake-up call to Uganda’s dire need for media accountability.

True, it is a worldwide phenomenon that certain so-called supermarket tabloids do not really practise journalism.

In the West, some of the craziest may scream headlines like “Noah’s Ark was a UFO,” or “Scientists confirm moon is made of cheese.” But it is understood it is for a laugh. Noah does not care.

Uganda’s vegetable papers – those publications naming themselves after vegetables – are in another category, more akin to The National Enquirer, a huge global seller which makes money by reporting gossip of the rich and famous. Stories might start with some truth but then stretch to ridiculous claims.

And, unlike a story on Noah being an alien, real people get hurt. This is why in other countries tabloids have sometimes been ordered by courts to pay millions of dollars in damages.

Yes, in much of the world, even sensational tabloids face consequences if guilty of libel, maligning someone’s character in print. Which brings us back to Kisakye and Atugonza and the vegetable journalism that followed their tragic end.

It is good and credible to report that an explosion in Kisakye’s hostel room killed these two. It is even fair to suggest a broken relationship was likely not just “a”, but “the” contributing factor. What is not good and credible is what Uganda’s best known tabloid newspaper screamed out, that “Burnt UCU HIV gal infected 10 boys” and how Atugonza was “a despicable woman” and how AIDS is now rampant at UCU: all with horrific photos of Atugonza’s charred remains.

In this so-called exclusive report seen by thousands, there was no health official interviewed, not one source properly identified and not even a reporter’s name attached. This is not shoddy journalism. It is not journalism at all.

So UCU’s community was left shellshocked not just once, but twice, mourning not just the double loss of life but the loss of honour and dignity and common decency.

Atugonza deserves better. Kisakye deserves better. Their families and friends deserve better. UCU deserves better. In fact, all of Uganda deserves better.

Yes, press accountability is terribly undeveloped in this country. This is why vegetable papers prowl and destroy journalistic ethics under the guise of journalism and with impunity.

But this will not always be the case. The day is coming when enough Ugandans who care for truth and development will say “it is enough”. They will use their voices for the sake of their country and bring the change that is needed.

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November 20, 2010 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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