Parliamentary journalists urged to dig deeper, go farther in their reporting

Journalists covering the newly-constituted Ugandan Parliament have been urged to go beyond writing stories on the day-to-day happenings in the House and interrogate issues.

The appeal was made by speakers at a panel discussion on ‘Rethinking Media Coverage of Parliament’ organised by African Centre for Media Excellence on May 31 in Kampala.

The panellists included Ms Helen Kawesa, the ‎assistant director of Parliament’s communications and public affairs department, Mr Felix Osike, New Vision editor and Mr Stephen Hippo Twebaze, a researcher on African parliaments.

ACME’s Executive Director, Peter Mwesige, who moderated the discussion, said while reporters are doing a good job of reporting daily events at Parliament, they can and should go further and do more insightful reporting.

For example, he said, reporters should be able to provide nuanced analysis on the nature of the House.

“At the end of year one, year two, or five years of Museveni’s Parliament, what was the character of the business in there? Did they [MPs] focus more on human rights or development?” he asked.

Dr Mwesige said that journalists should also tell their audiences drives legislative activity.

“What informs our legislation?” he asked. “What are those interests that push them? How do they end up in the cabinet secretariat or as white paper before they come to Parliament? How do they end up at the office of the parliamentary council?”

The 10th Parliament of Uganda started its business last month after a colourful three-day swearing-in ceremony.

All panellists at the talk called on journalists to consistently scrutinise House business in order to provide their audiences with information and tools to hold MPs accountable.

“Covering parliament requires different skills or requires advancement in skills than perhaps what we learn in journalism school. You need to go further, you need some tools of analysis of what Parliament does,” Mr Twebaze said.

He disclosed his research findings that dispute a commonly held belief that Parliament is a mere rubber stamp of the desires of the presidency. According to his analysis, MPs, even those from the ruling National Resistance Movement party, regularly subject most legislative processes to independent inquiry.

“I don’t think that there is a Parliament where a bill has ever been tabled, and out of say 100 bills, you find that 60% of the bills have not been scrutinized; no, “he emphasised.

Mr Osike, who for several years reported on Parliament, called for a move away from sensational stories of personal conflicts in the house.

“We tend to focus on the clashes, the conflict between personalities in the House and forget to define the important issues that touch on our citizens,” he observed.

Mr Osike challenged journalists to cover, in detail, issues that have been ignored by both the media and MPs, like policy statements, their implementation and impact.

For Ms Kawesa the need for journalists to educate themselves on all aspects of parliamentary business is paramount.

“One of the roles of Parliament is oversight; monitoring the activities of the Executive. As you are covering Parliament, are you fostering this role? Do you think Parliament is doing enough to monitor the activities of the executive?” she asked.

She said journalists need to challenge MPs on promises made to their constituencies that voted them to office.

Veteran parliamentary reporter Dick Nvule of Radio Simba said journalists have not used the Prime Minister’s question time to their advantage.

“We as journalists can use that time, engage MPs that are friendly to us and push our questions on the floor of Parliament. You get an opportunity to get in a good story from the Prime Minister which you may have failed to get after chasing him for an interview,” Mr Nvule advised.

Suleiman Kakaire, a journalist from The Observer, urged new reporters to seek out knowledgeable MPs.

“You don’t want to end up quoting someone who is an educationalist on an issue of health if you require technical knowledge,” he said.

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African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) hosts monthly public talks on policy, society, business and culture aimed at equipping journalists and other public actors with knowledge and insights on the key issues of the day.

Grace Natabaalo

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

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