Monday March 5 2018

Cheeye’s brand of investigative reporting set him miles apart

 Okodan Akwap

Okodan Akwap 

By Okodan Akwap

We are almost all gone. I am talking about the death of nearly a whole crop of veteran Ugandan journalists who cut their teeth on news reporting during the tough times of the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Over the last three decades, especially, so many of our impecunious generation of hardworking and unassuming scribes have gone to a better place. They gave way to the swashbuckling generation of journalists, who are too clever for their own good.

I feel particularly heavyhearted in the sense that I can no longer remember with clarity who died when and from what cause.
Part of the reason is that I left the country in 1986 and returned some 12 years later in early 1998. Shortly after my return, Ndyakira Amooti, a globally acclaimed environmental reporter (he was even knighted and given the hallowed title ‘Sir”) with New Vision suddenly died of leukaemia.

Ndyakira and I worked with The People newspaper in the early 1980s. He was chief reporter and I was a staff reporter. Some of our colleagues like Amos Kajoba also succumbed to health-related complications.

Others like James Okanya, formerly of Uganda Times, perished in road accident. More recently, the surging cancer scourge cut short the lives of veteran journalists with nationwide name recognition such as Bale Francis and Andrew Patrick Luwandaga, both of UBC TV.

Teddy Ssezi Cheeye, who perished under the wheels of a speeding boda boda or motorcycle on March 1, was the latest veteran journalist to leave us so suddenly.

Controversial, cocky and sometimes self-absorbed, Cheeye pursued a brand of investigative reporting that set him miles apart from other local journalists who dabbled in that line of journalism.

His newspaper, Uganda Confidential, acted as some kind of abattoir, where Cheeye slaughtered the reputation of many mighty individuals. Cheeye stepped on way too many toes.

I joined The Monitor almost immediately after I returned in 1998 and I remember writing an opinion piece defending Cheeye after one of the people he annoyed – Wasswa Biriggwa now in FDC I believe – punched him in the face.

My defence of Cheeye was – and still is – based on the fact that in a deeply corrupt society such as ours, somebody must have the guts to, at the very least, put a face to the pandemic that corruption has become.

Cheeye’s unorthodox and questionable methods notwithstanding, his newspaper epitomised the four major reasons why we must promote investigative reporting:

People have a right to know, abuse of power must be exposed, media people have a duty to watch how well people in power perform their jobs, and any other acts of wrongdoing (such as the kidnappings and murders now striking fear in the very heart of our nation) must be brought to the full glare of media light.

Still, these reasons do not give investigative reporters here or elsewhere the right to grow on people’s skins like a bad case of ringworm. There is a need for what is described in one of Reuters’ handbooks on journalism as “freedom from bias.”

Cheeye’s undoing was his inability to even try to embrace the two key elements which Reuters correctly identified as the “hallmarks of serious investigative reporting.” These elements are: Neutrality and impartiality.

Reuters, which was founded in Britain in 1851, runs a mega news operation, with hundreds of correspondents scattered all over the world. The thing is, it does not matter who these correspondents are or where they are, the rule of thumb they are expected to follow is: “Take no side, tell all sides of the story and preserve your neutrality and impartiality.”

Cheeye is gone and he leaves the local media people with a challenge: How not to emulate his methods of investigations without discounting the value, the desirability and the applicability of his intentions to peer into the depth of our deeply flawed society.

Dr Akwap is the Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences and Management Studies at Kumi University.