Friday, November 30, 2012

“Irreverent, unruly and opinionated”: The lessons Uganda’s media can learn from Lord Leveson

WORKING in Afghanistan just after the fall of the Taliban I called it the ‘Galápagos Islands of Journalism’.
When Charles Darwin visited the remote Pacific islands in 1835 he found the wildlife largely undisturbed by outside influence, and so it was with Afghan journalism. Apart from a bit of help from the invading Russians and some old colonial approaches British the Afghans had just done it their way.
So, it was against this backdrop that I was able to see if all the things I held dear about the theory and practice of journalism made any sense. The lovely people who queued up to be journalists in their newly ‘liberated’ country – mainly poets, sculptors and thinkers from a liberal arts background – enjoyed my robust approach to holding the rich and powerful to account but found it hard to maintain the level of intensity needed to make it all mean something.
Fast forward 10 years and here I am in Uganda trying to make sense of their media landscape, in not altogether dissimilar circumstances. I saw it all writ large yesterday at Makerere University’s Annual Media Convention, where the great and the good tried to make sense of investigative journalism.
 Following the informative and  enlightening keynote address – ‘Investigative Journalism: An Adequate Defence of Human Rights and Good Governance’ – by Dr Monica Chibita from Uganda Christian University in Mukono, veteran editor David Sseppuuya (above) came at it with both barrels.
Launching into his topic – ‘Investigative Journalism on the Ugandan Media Landscape: Are We Doing Enough?’ – he derided the “easy pickings” mentality of journalists who simply make the most out of somebody else’s report. “Where is the initiative?” he asked.
He cited a “newsroom culture of indifference” as one of the reasons for a poor recent record of investigations and bemoaned the obstructive impact of big business, who use their clout as major advertisers to restrict journalists nosing about in their affairs.

'Bored' with corruption

Counsel for defence, in the shape of senior editorial executives from Daily Monitor (motto: Truth Every Day), New Vision (Uganda’s Leading Daily) and The Observer (Taking You Deeper) burrowed further into the current malaise, referring to poor salaries for journalists and the subsequent corruption in the newsroom as companies and organisations pay for favourable coverage.
Buried away in Lord Leveson’s statement on regulating the British press, released yesterday, he said: “There are truly countless examples of great journalism, great investigations and great campaigns. Not that it is necessary or appropriate for the press always to be pursuing serious stories for it to be working in the public interest. 
“Some of its most important functions are to inform, educate and entertain and, when doing so, to be irreverent, unruly and opinionated.”
I’ve spent nearly 40 years being “irreverent, unruly and opinionated” so it’s nice to have his lordship’s blessing. But I can’t help but feel Uganda’s Press might benefit from his words too.
As a student was brave enough to point out to the conference he was “bored” with stories about corruption (see earlier “easy pickings” comment). Me too, and I’ve only been here a few months.
Where are the stories about conservation, the environment, people just doing bad things? Every day I see stories that make me think: What’s going on there?

My experience of running newspaper investigations in the UK, US, the Caribbean and, yes, even Afghanistan points to the seeds of success being planted at home with a hungry newsroom of motivated journalists.
And that motivation and inspiration comes in many forms, not just money. And there is nothing more motivating than seeing your publication make a difference.


  1. I agree with you entirely. We aren't doing enough. Thanks for the piece.

  2. Great opinion Alan; independent Investigative Journalism in Uganda can be viewed as the only genre left to redefine Journalism as a profession, this coupled with social media strategies and citizen participation will not only address social issues but cause demand for change by citizens themselves, however the political environment merged with intimidation, threats and economic constraints are viewed as stampedes to this realisation.

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