Greater care needed on subjective descriptions

By Joachim Buwembo

Besigye under the watchful eye of police. There are times when you read a news story and find yourself smiling.  Many times it is over a very serious matter, but the way the journalist puts it so carelessly leaves you no option but to laugh.

The most recent treat of humour was served by the scribes during the attempted Walk to Work demo by opposition leaders in Kampala. Special internet editions reported without any qualification how police personnel had used reasonable force to apprehend Forum for Democratic Change leader Kizza Besigye as he left his home in Kasangati. No quotation mark. Just plain ‘reasonable force’. I tried to close my eyes and visualize this tool called reasonable force that the police officers had used. Is it a type of handcuffs? A specially trained police dog? A tranquilizer rifle bullet? A squad of unarmed but heavily muscled ‘kanyamas’?

I shall not attack my young brothers and sisters in the media today, but let me just point out that this disease started in the days of ‘Life President” Idi  Amin. Newsmen, radio and TV announcers would casually use the phrases he coined as if they were facts: “Speaking from the depth of his great wisdom, our beloved leader who will rule Uganda until the Lord takes him away said, ‘…..’ .”

This was one of the standard ways of reporting what the president had said. The report of ‘great wisdom’ then followed, usually abusing some foreign leader, or describing the type of dress which the president did not want Ugandan women to wear.

After the departure of the ‘life president’, we got unstable regimes which messed up the media and made reporting even more hilarious. After banning the serious newspapers like The Weekly Topic of the ‘Sapoba Troika’ (Bidandi Ssali, Kintu Musoke and Kirunda Kivejjinja), The Citizen that belonged to the Democratic Party and The Economy of Roland Kakooza Mutale, the government left the field for its journalists and those of The People (the then ruling party newspaper) to report as they pleased: “The minister was shown three rebels who were arrested in a nearby bush,” the high-pitched voice of Collins Bolingonyole would go on Radio Uganda, rather too frequently. Such ‘rebels arrested in a nearby bush’ had become a routine feature of any rally where a minister went to address wananchi, reminding them to reject rebellion and so on and so forth. The local leaders, to prove that they had rejected rebellion in the area as a way of ensuring that the army is not sent in to hunt for rebels, would pick some habitual chicken thieves, drunkards or ‘matatu’ players and parade them as rebels picked from the nearby bush. The journalists would knowingly report this as fact.

Our journalists are not alone in these generous descriptions. The glorified Western Media is even more guilty. Many a time they casually talk of ‘pro-democracy rebels’ without any discernible effort to show how democratic these forces are.

Time usually sets the record straight, but by then nobody remembers or cares.By the time, for instance, the Western establishments decided to kill Jonas Savimbi, the media concentrated on the thrilling aspects of the ‘execution’ and no longer cared how they had hailed the same man for ‘standing up to communism’ and so on.

These ‘pro-democracy protestors’ have been having a field day in the Middle East, now intensively in Libya.  But it did not start with them. Does anybody bother to remember the platitudes with which Karzai’s group was described as the dreadful Taliban who were being overpowered in Afghanistan? Karzai’s vicious land grabbers are still around, but are no longer enjoying the blanket descriptions the Western media used to shower on them. Our reporters and editors need to be careful the way they report subjective descriptions so they do not end up sounding like facts. If police say they used reasonable force in arresting Besigye, attribute this to them. ***

About the author Mr. Buwembo is a Knight Foundation International Journalism Fellow based in Dar es Salaam. He was the founding Managing Editor of The Citizen in Tanzania, and is a former Managing Editor of the Daily Monitor and former editor of the Sunday Vision in Kampala.

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