Journalists in Uganda get kicked around quite a bit. No, they get kicked around a lot. Many times literally.
For quick reference, there is that surrendering figure of photojournalist James Akena from August 2018 being brutalised by soldiers in broad daylight in the middle of Kampala. Or go back to January 2015 when police officer Joram Mwesigye grievously assaulted TV journalist Andrew Lwanga in broad daylight in the middle of Kampala. He ended up on the surgeon’s table over a damaged spine.
If the journalists’ daylights are not being punched out, other smaller assaults are taking place all the time. They are denounced charitably as peddlers of rumours or uncharitably as enemies of the State. Or they are simply taken for granted.
Some journalists, it appears, are beginning a much-needed counter-strike. On Tuesday, reporters waited for DP president-general Norbert Mao to address them at the party’s weekly news conference. These encounters take place at 10am on Tuesdays. But DP leaders rarely keep time. Last week was no exception. Having waited one hour and 30 minutes without a start in sight, the journalists flipped. They stormed out of the room, and addressed each other in their own presser.
“We want to be considered as important people, we have deadlines for the bulletins but whenever we come to DP offices we spend almost half a day on one assignment which is not fair,” said CBS’s Sharif Lukenge, the protest leader.
The implication of DP’s regular tardiness is larger because it touches the pockets of journalists, many of whom are paid per story. “Some of us are assigned to cover several assignments but we end up doing one because of time wastage,” said Ms Regina Nassanga of Mama FM, according to Daily Monitor report.
Late comer-in-chief Mao apologised profusely and promised to never be late again. He had better keep his word and honour because, it turns out, DP tardiness is historical. Surprisingly, all the reporting I saw last week never made reference to an earlier protest.
The New Vision of October 31, 2017, reported: “A group of journalists from various media houses have stormed out of a [DP] weekly press conference after party leaders failed to keep time.
“The fuming [journalists] said the conference was scheduled for 10am, but they waited for two hours without hearing from the party leadership.”
Mr Robert Ssenkumba, a radio journalist, groused: “We are sick and tired of people who cannot keep time. We came here as early as 9am, but no one has come out to address us.”
Mr Mao must be feeling like he is already sitting in State House Entebbe. Occupants of that mini-palace are known to almost never keep time. But Mr Mao and his party are not in government, so they need not act presidential just yet.
All self-important people out there, especially politicians and top technocrats, ought to know that they win enormous goodwill when they take journalists seriously. Return calls when you promise so. Don’t issue a press release with a phone number to be called for clarification then switch off your phone. Otherwise, if Mr Mao can get chastened, many others too can in the right circumstances.
That said, journalists should also do better. It is common for reporters to show up at an event when it is ending.
An event starts on time at 9:30am and a reporter shows up an hour or two later. Without any shame, such a reporter, mostly recorder in hand, will be seen hustling the organiser, press person or speaker to recap.
This partly explains why we have thinly sourced stories and stories that lack context. We get stories that are flavourless because the journalist was not present to absorb the premise of issues discussed.
It is possibly this sort of journalism that makes some like the DP chief take journalists for granted. If I am blaming the victim here, it is only to say that the room for improvement is never full.
Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.