In my column of May 29 titled “Careful! Cartoons on religion may invite laughter and fury,” I wrote that religion is one of the most emotive areas of human interaction. I concluded as below:
“It is important therefore that cartoonists and editors give serious thought to the cartoons [articles] they intend to publish, especially if they have a tinge of religion, ethnicity, race or sexuality. These are areas that easily get people agitated even though publishing them may be perfectly legal. So be sensitive to the audience, consider timing and context, and be sure it is fair comment.
Last week, I received several complaints about a story titled, “Who is funding Uganda’s new high-rise mosques?” (Daily Monitor, July 3) mostly asking what was the essence of publishing it. What purpose was it supposed to serve? Why was the construction of mosques important news for Daily Monitor to provide a full page space to it? Why has the same question not been asked about the many churches being built? Was it meant to link the new mosques to “dirty” money?
Veteran television journalist Kassim Kayira and journalist-cum-academic Yusuf Serunkuma took time to directly write to Daily Monitor protesting the insinuations in the article and questioning the logic of publishing it. I wrote to the editors alerting them about the raging public debate about the article on social media where I had been severally tagged. A similar debate was apparently going on in the newsroom – where it should perhaps have happened before the article was published. On the Daily Monitor Facebook page, the story had 1.1k reactions (1k thumbs up, 44 laughs, and 43 angry emoticons), 651 comments and 89 shares. On Twitter, it had 158 likes, 36 retweets and 60 comments. I have not captured the conversations that went on elsewhere on people’s personal social pages and on Corporate Muslims Facebook page.
We will never know the extent of one-on-one conversations in homes, in offices, in mosques and other private places that went on about this story. So what was right or wrong about this story? The story did a good job documenting the renaissance, so to speak, of Islamic faith in the country showing how Muslims have pulled together their resources to construct new places of worship, renovate (improve) old mosques as well as their noble plans to shift attention to building other social amenities like health centres, schools (including kindergartens), etc.
That is something to celebrate about! The multiplicity of voices of different Muslim leaders from different parts of the country was a good thing and brought national perspective to the good developments that are happening within the Muslim community.
Indeed from a journalistic perspective, the story answered the five Ws and H – where, who, why, when, what and how. It however dismally failed to answer the “so what?” question and that is what was fundamentally wrong with the story.
Second, the story in its broad tone and narration came off as alerting the country to “a new Muslim invasion” funded by unknown people from yonder. Nearly all the responses of the different sheikhs quoted in the story were defensive, showing that they were at pains to explain that the construction of mosques was a matter of faith, nothing else. There is no reason to put Muslims on the defensive! The indignation of Muslim community is, therefore, understandable, considering that no similar story (or even reference) was made to the mushrooming, churches especially of the Pentecostal disposition like the Mormons, that are similarly coming up everywhere with beautiful buildings, neat compounds and very comely environment with prominent signposts reading: “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”. Many Ugandans should be asking of these churches the same question Daily Monitor asked of the Muslims!
That said, it is clear from the internal discussions in the newsroom that followed the publication of the story – and feedback from the editors – that there was no deliberate intention to “other” Muslims or to portray them in a suspicious manner. It is not even allowed in the NMG Editorial Policy Guidelines that I have severally shared in this column. It was a problem of poor execution of a legitimate editorial idea that sought to show development. The angling of the story and the choice of headline was therefore simply bad journalism, not agenda setting. If there is any lesson that should be learnt from this story by the newsroom, it is that they must always ask and answer the “so what?” question before publishing any story to avoid unintended consequences.
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