Closure of Radio Unity symptomatic of poor peace journalism practices

By David Rupiny

As you read this article, Radio Unity, arguably Lira’s most popular radio station, could still be under lock and key. The station was closed 13 days ago by authorities over hate speech, inciting violence and spreading sectarianism against the Asian community, particularly Indian and Pakistani traders.

By the time of writing this article, mean-looking soldiers and policemen were keeping watch at the station located in the heart of Lira, a bustling business town in Lango sub-region of northern Uganda. The town has attracted hundreds of Asian traders who deal in retail businesses, large-scale agro-processing, etc.

The closure of the radio stems from concerns by the Lira District Security Committee chaired by the Resident District Commissioner, Milton Odongo, that local radio stations peddled hate speech and incited the locals to attack traders of Asian origin and their businesses. This was after two cotton dealers of Indian extraction, Vayas Fravey and Madmay Gaga were accused of killing Dickens Okello, an 11-year-old primary three pupil of Alito Primary School in Alito Sub-county in Kole District, Lira’s neighbor to the West, on November 9. The duo both work with Meenay Cotton Limited which operates Odokomit Ginnery in Lira town.

It is alleged that on that fateful Friday, Okello was returning home from school, together with his older brother Denis Ogwang, when they met the suspects who attempted to lure them into their pickup truck using sweets. After they refused and fled, Fravey and Gaga reportedly gave chase and grabbed Okello who had gotten trapped in barbed wire. The dominant narrative is that the two men strangled Okello. The suspects have been charged with murder and remanded to Soroti Government Prison. They deny the charges.

On Saturday, November 17, violence broke out in Alito Sub-county during the burial of Okello, and spread to Lira. Several businesses belonging to people of Asian origin were looted. The District Police Commander Joel Tubanone, who sits on the security committee, subsequently led a team of police and military personnel who switched off the station and arrested whoever they found there, including clients. They were detained, released on police bond, re-arrested and released again on police bond. They have not been charged yet.

The shutdown of the radio station has since attracted sharp condemnation from its listeners, as well as local human rights advocates, who have launched a campaign dubbed “Free Radio Unity”. The broadcast regulator, Uganda Commissions Commission, is also investigating the allegations against the radio station, to determine whether it violated the Minimum Broadcasting Standards.

The developments in Lira and the problem that Radio Unity finds itself in, are symptomatic of the challenge radio stations face when dealing with conflict, a key element in news. Radio Unity’s chief executive, Jimmy Uhuru Luis Onapa, denies that they peddled hate speech and incited violence, arguing that they reported the story as is. Speaking to Uganda Radio Network, Uhuru said the shutdown of the radio and arrest of its staffers is “a deliberate infringement on media rights”. This is a cliché statement that media practitioners always make whenever they are under the spotlight.

I’m not declaring Radio Unity guilty but a peace-building lens is key in understanding the station’s predicament. When gathering material for this article, it emerged that there could have been lapses in coverage of the story by several radio stations. For instance, moderators of talk shows and call-in programmes did not challenge misinformation, hate speech or call to violence.

Being the hottest news in town, radio stations in Lira, including Radio Unity, gave the story a lot of airtime – in news bulletins, discussions, interviews and call-ins. The intention was right, but the practice was not, in many respects.

It’s evident that many broadcasters in Lira do not know the “how-to” of dealing with conflict situations. They might have been overtaken by emotions and ended up taking sides in covering Okello’s killing.

For a radio professional to have a positive effect on conflict, violent or not, he or she has to understand it properly, according to a 2006 Radio for Peace building Africa report. One step is to analyse the issue and understand its roots. It’s worth noting that the violence in Lira on November 17, triggered by the killing of Okello, was the outcome of long running undercurrents between the traders of Asian origin and the locals. Some of the locals’ grievances against the Asian community include mistreatment of local residents they hire, sexual abuse, unfair business practices and racism. The locals’ frustration is compounded by the sentiment that the authorities, especially the police, favour Asians whenever cases are brought against them.

Radio stations in Lira have been dealing with conflict situations, including the two-decade Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency, for a long time. By now, radios should have developed guidelines for covering conflict in a transformative manner. Only through these mechanisms and adherence to them can a radio station distinguish itself as a true champion of peace and development.

Search for Common Ground, a leading global peace-building organisation, defines conflict as “the relationship between at least two parties, individuals or groups, who have, or who think they have, incompatible objectives, needs and interests”. Conflict is an integral part of everyone’s lives, meaning that the best approach is to build common ground, manage and not deepen it. In the case of Lira, like anywhere else, the media should continuously build common ground, by particularly reaching out to parties that seem aloof.

The business interest aside, Vision Group’s idea of including stories from the Asian community in its platforms is a good example of how to bring together different sections of society. The interface between the Asian community and locals should not stop at the latter buying stuff from the former. If either side is not reaching out to the other, the media should bridge the gap because its role is fundamental in building common ground between conflicting parties. That is why it concerns me that the media should be accused of fomenting hate speech, racism and violence in a place like Lira.

In the Rwanda Genocide of 1994, there’s documented evidence that radio contributed in heightening tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi. It’s therefore true that radio can contribute to conflict or help deepen a culture of dialogue and peaceful coexistence. Many radio professionals can have a negative impact without meaning to, which is why it is crucial to make a case for radio as a peace-building platform.

If used well, radio can deepen understanding between ethnic, religious, linguistic or other groups by bridging communication gap between protagonists, correcting misconceptions, challenging stereotypes and giving voice to all parties.

Did Radio Unity, as well as the other radio stations in Lira, do the above? Your guess is as good as mine.

The media, and in this context radio, should not look at conflict as a zero-sum game, where one party wins and the other loses. In a conflict situation, interests are usually covert, while positions are overt. Protagonists will focus on positions while hiding their true interests. You have heard politicians or so-called “revolutionaries” claiming to fight for the people only to become the opposite when they attain power. Radio (media) professionals should beware of positions and interests in any conflict situation. Usually, and most likely in the Lira situation, the media focused on positions as propagated by the protagonists without appreciating the real interests. For example, a radio caller advocating for revenge might be facing stiff business competition from a trader of Asian extraction.

The media can also explore the facts in a conflict situation. For example, what exactly was the circumstance of the death of little Okello? If well investigated, perhaps the dominant narrative would change. A radio station or journalist in a conflict situation should establish facts and analyse them before jumping to report or discuss it. When it comes to conflict reporting, it is not so much about being seen to side with the majority, or even being the first to report it.

While the action of the security committee in closing Radio Unity is condemnable, it calls for introspection on the state of radio (media) and peacebuilding in Uganda. I’ll recommend as follows:

  • Locating peacebuilding as a central area of interest in media scape.
  • Making development-of-media and media-for-development a key area of training and debate by organisations like African Centre for Media Excellence, Uganda Radio Network, Wizarts Foundation and other media development organisations.
  • Universities and other training institutions should consider peacebuilding and conflict management as an integral part of journalism training.
  • Media houses should create internal mechanisms of dealing with conflict, including policies and practices, and ensure positive attitude change from their journalists.
  • Media professionals should be mindful of their responsibility to build common ground.

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Rupiny is a broadcast journalist and media trainer.

 

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