Humanising social justice stories is essential to effect change

Uganda’s prisons system is plagued with problems. Journalists across the country have done a commendable job covering the plight of prisoners on remand, the impact of insufficient funding, and the crumbling and overstretched infrastructure. However there is a dearth of reporting on rehabilitation programmes, prisons management, juvenile justice, reintegration of ex-prisoners and sentencing guidelines.

So when Frederic Musisi, a journalist with Daily Monitor, was told the story of the troubling condition of a man with mental health challenges accused of rape, it did not take him long to identify an area ripe for investigation.

“Initially I wanted to do a quick news story, but I thought there was more to this,” he told ACME.

The result was a three-part investigation in the dilemma of inmates with mental health issues, focused on cases of neglect and wrongful incarceration of prisoners in Katojo Prison in Fort Portal. For the series, Musisi won the second-place award for justice, law and order reporting at the Uganda National Journalism Awards 2017. He recently sat down with ACME for a chat about his investigative process and the impact of his report.

How long did it take to put the story together?

It took me almost a year. Meetings with lawyers were cancelled at the last minute and prisons authorities who promised me access to the inmates backed out when I arrived in Fort Portal. On one occasion, prisons officers denied me permission to interview the inmates, claiming that “sane” people could not have meaningful conversation with people with mental health issues.

One of the primary actors in your reports was Sande Kamuhanda, a man who had been diagnosed with a mental illness, but remained on remand for 26 years. How did you find him and why did you choose to tell his story?

A lawyer friend of mine, who has developed a list of inmates with mental health problems, introduced me to Sande Kamuhanda. Kamuhanda was arrested in 1990 for murder and defilement. After a medical examination, he was found to suffer mental illness.

When people like Kamuhanda are remanded, the Minister of Justice must be informed in order to authorise their release into a mental health institution. Uganda has had many justice ministers since Kamuhanda was arrested many years ago, and all were made aware of his and others’ cases. I personally saw records of these notifications.

With this in mind, I thought that the legal intricacies that led to Kamuhanda’s prolonged incarceration needed to be addressed.

Daily Monitor's Frederic Musisi
Daily Monitor’s Frederic Musisi

You wrote that it was near impossible for you to interview the prisoners. How did you deal with the red tape involved in covering prisons?

A journalist never backs down or stops just because someone said no. Sometimes maneuvers are necessary. Somehow, I got into the prison to see Kamuhanda, but unfortunately he had been heavily sedated and couldn’t talk to me. So I opted to speak to one of the warders who told me part of Kamuhanda’s story and explained his condition.

Sadly Kamuhanda died in April last year having been behind bars for 26 years with no relative to care for, or ask about him.  I think I am the only person who visited apart from another journalist who had attempted to do a story on him. He died alone with no one by his side.

What happened after he died?

By the time Sande Kamuhanda died I had finished the story, but we had not yet published it. When we finally published the first two parts of the series, some non-government organisations picked up the issue and brought it to the judges. With the stories and lobbying from elsewhere, all seven prisoners with mental health issues who were incarcerated at Katojo Prison were released.

The third part of your story followed the release of the prisoners. These men, now free, were under no obligation to speak to you after their ordeal. What did you do to gain their confidence?

By the time I went back to Fort Portal, the seven who had been released had gone into hiding. They fled Fort Portal because it brought back bad memories of prison and the crimes they had committed. I finally found them hiding out in Bundibugyo district.

There is no magic wand to getting and winning over sources. It just takes time and sometimes it’s just luck. At the end of the day, it’s persistence. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

The Uganda National Journalism Awards judges were impressed by the way you humanised a complex legal issue. How are you able to communicate the victims’ emotions and win readers’ sympathy without exaggerating the story?

The best way to do such stories is to put yourself in the shoes of the person you are writing about. You write the story as if you were writing about yourself or a relative.  Also, interacting with the victims and people like prison warders and their relatives helped me understand their stories better.  That made it quite easy to write from the heart and not just the mind.

I wanted to paint the picture that anyone of us is prone to mental illness, which is why it is important to correct the flaws in the judicial system and respect everybody’s rights.

Do you think you succeeded in publicising the abuse of the rights of prisoners with mental health problems and causing change?

To an extent, yes. I brought to the public’s attention the fact that prison isn’t a hospital or a mental facility and prisoners with mental health problems have a right to receive proper treatment. However the cases in Katojo Prison are just a drop in the bucket. There are many other stories all over the country that need to be told. If am still practicing journalism in 2020, I will do another story then, to report on what happened five years later.

About Frederic Musisi

Frederic Musisi is part of the special projects and investigations desk at Daily Monitor. Prior to that he worked at The Observer newspaper. Apart from writing on social justice issues, Musisi has a keen interest in oil and gas reporting.

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Read Frederic Musisi’s investigation on the plight of prisoners with mental illnesses below:

Part one – Search for justice: The dilemma of mentally ill inmates

Part two – When patients are prisoners

Part three – As court makes strides on mentally ill inmates, who cares?

 

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