ACME Lecture: Promoting intellectual media discourse

By Bernard Tabaire

(Below is the slightly edited text of the overview of the “Media and Politics in Africa Annual Lecture” series that Mr Tabaire, ACME co-founder and director of programmes, gave at the inaugural lecture at Golf Course Hotel in Kampala on Wednesday, 26 November 2014)

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Welcome to this the inaugural Media and Politics in Africa Annual Lecture. This is the first lecture in what will be a series of annual lectures to be eventually published into a booklet for wider distribution.

The purpose of this lecture series is twofold:

a)      to offer a higher-level platform for Ugandan media practitioners and friends of the media to reflect broadly on the intersection between media and politics on the continent; and

b)      to contribute to the resurgent cultural and intellectual life of Kampala, and indeed Uganda.

The broad theme of the lecture series is “Media and Politics in Africa”. It primarily seeks to explore the ever-alive subject of the relationship between media and politics as the continent strives, ever so unsteadily, toward greater accountable government and freedom and prosperity for all. Sometimes, depending on where you are, the question is who is in whose pockets? Who represents which interests? Who panders to whom? We will explore some of these issues in these lectures. But we are interested in something else as well. What are the trends in media (or precisely news) management in Africa in the face of ever-changing information and communication technologies? How about the so-called invasion of Africa by China the Dragon? Is what is happening in Nigeria or South Africa or Cote d’Ivoire or Rwanda or Zimbabwe or Burkina Faso of any meaning for media people in Uganda? These lectures will seek to explore what is similar and what is not similar, they will tease out continuities and discontinuities across borders. They will attempt to encourage Ugandan media people and friends of the media to reflect more on what is happening here at home, while at the same time gaining a better glimpse of the world beyond yet not too far away. Parochialism, after all, is never a good thing.

There is no gainsaying the importance of an informed and open-minded journalist, media owner, or media manager. Ignorance, sometimes wilful, should never be an option. It corrodes and disfigures societies. It is, therefore, our hope at the African Centre for Media Excellence that we can contribute somewhat to a media landscape that is populated with more discerning practitioners. That we can do something to kick forward the stirrings of intellectual life in Kampala, we will. For decades our city, our country, has wobbled, overwhelmed by the crassness and violence of politics. Often platitudes, name-calling, point scoring, and one-upmanship have passed for intellectual discourse. Proclamations and declarations, however loudly and passionately made, must not take the place of reasoned and honest debate. We could do with more substantive yet consistent public debates and lectures inside our universities and outside.

In the 1960s Ali Mazrui, an academic, did battle with Akena Adoko, a top ruling party ideologue and state operative; academics Mahmood Mamdani and Samwiri Karugire anchored some serious public debate in the 1980s. The 1970s and the 1990s were intellectually dead decades. So were the 2000s, or the naughties if you like, except for the annual Bank of Uganda-run Joseph Mubiru Memorial Lecture. As Uganda’s political and economic spheres have dusted themselves up somewhat from years of state collapse, cultural life has lagged. Why? That, I think, is a subject worth investigating.

But, something has been happening in the last five or six years. At small art galleries, at small institutes and centres and theatres and even bars, inside some academic departments, at quiet book launches, Ugandans have been gathering and talking about things they are creating, things they are seeing, thoughts they are thinking, dreams they are dreaming. We at the African Centre for Media Excellence want to be a part of this story.

For nearly two years now, we have been holding monthly talks at our office meant primarily for journalists although open to everyone else. Only last week we hosted the director of public prosecutions. He held forth on the place of the Directorate of Public Prosecutions in the delivery of justice in Uganda. It was a most engaging and enlightening talk. We have one more talk before the year ends. Please do drop in when you see a notice. We have also been showing documentaries, feature films and dramas on media/public policy and discussing them as journalists and media practitioners. This annual lecture grows out of that process. The lecture will be delivered in Kampala every November by an African of note (however you define that) whose work has significantly joined for better or for worse the worlds of media and politics. We believe it is a matter of time before we see more regular, more public, and more visible encounters like what we are about to witness in this hall. We encourage other organisations, and possibly individuals, who care about the quality of public discourse in Uganda to start or support similar initiatives. I would therefore like to thank the Democratic Governance Facility for funding the first three of these lectures on media and politics in Africa. I would also like to recognise the support of the Daily Monitor, the New Vision and the Observer newspapers for the promotion of today’s lecture.

We at the African Centre for Media Excellence hope that the spirit of vigorous intellectual inquiry that was once seen in our city and in our journals such as Mawazo, Uganda Journal and, more important, Transition, can be renewed.

Yesterday, American surgeon and writer Atul Gawande delivered his first of four 2014 BBC Reith Lectures under the theme “The Future of Medicine”. The Reith Lectures have been going for 66 years. May the lecture series we are launching in this hall today last 100 years plus.

Grace Natabaalo

Grace Natabaalo is a programme assistant at the African Centre for Media Excellence.

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