“You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read.”
This quote from a seasoned reporter in Evelyn Waugh’s hilarious Scoop could very well describe the philosophy of journalism in Uganda. You see, in my country, the phenomenon of a thinking journalist is a dying one. It appears that any semblance of critical thought has been replaced by mediocrity and journalists bhave convinced themselves of the lie that the audience is as dumb as they are.
I’m not being harsh. I too am journalist. A Ugandan journalist. I exercise critical thought only on my birthday and public holidays.
On December 14, 2008, a joint force of troops from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Southern Sudan launched an offensive against the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The force air bombed LRA bases in the DR Congo’s Garamba Forest with the intention of compelling the rebel commander Joseph Kony to either surrender or sign a peace deal with the Government of Uganda.
The news cycle in Kampala was slow at the time. My non-thinking colleagues and I, who do little more than wait for stories to be dropped on our laps, were stuck regurgitating old ideas about Christmas cheer, the global financial crisis and who’s shagging who in the celebrity world. The air strikes were a blessing and we jumped on the story with the same frenzied mindlessness that characterizes our work all year round.
Few asked questions about the merit of air bombing a terrorist with more knowledge of a jungle war than his attackers. How much would the offensive cost? How long would it last? Were precautions taken to protect civilians in the Congo? How would it impact countries in the region? What would be the measure of success? If it failed, who was blame?
Facts of the offensive were, and still are, being spoon-fed to us by the military. We are winning, they boast. Kony escaped by a whisker, they claim. With no direct access to the battle front – embedded or not – the news media in Uganda is left to speculate about what has happened and it is hard to separate the truth from the lies.
No one is telling the story from the ground. News media owners in Uganda do not want to risk sending a journalist into the Congo. They claim it would be too expensive and dangerous to dare. Some are comfortable getting second-hand information from an army spokesperson or the deputy defense minister, for whom spin is second nature. Yet despite the knowledge of the faults of reporting this story by proxy, the Congo offensive remains a high news value story for the media in Uganda because it provides color and excitement.
The result is a string of screaming headlines that insult the intelligence of even the least discerning reader. Here’s a sample of the headlines from Uganda’s three English dailies, The Daily Monitor, New Vision and Red Pepper, from December 15, 2008 to January 4, 2009.
“If people cannot rely on the news for facts,” Roger Rosenblatt, wrote in Time Magazine, “then journalism has no reason for being.”
Maybe it’s time for me to get a new job.