By Tabu Butagira
I am catching the tail end of a war of words between the Ugandan Parliament and journalists accredited to cover its proceedings.
The Clerk to Parliament, Ms Jane Kibirige, wrote to media houses on March 9, asking editors to swap reporters who have covered the August House for five or more years with new ones. There are 51 of such current or past journalists listed in an attachment to the letter. The clerk’s reason: Satisfy the “interest of balanced media coverage of the Parliament.”
Then followed the opprobrium. Affected journalists threatened court action to reclaim their rights to exercise media freedom guaranteed under Article 29 of the Constitution should dialogue and outright protest fail.
Subsequently, Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah said whereas he was not party to the decision, the “letter should be treated as a letter, its command as no command”. This notwithstanding, there was, and still is, no consensus within the media fraternity on the touchy matter.
It is, however, the clothing of the contests and demonstrable insincerity on both sides that I want to hazard thoughts on.
Parliament’s objection is to what it perceives as “negative and biased” stories about the institution. Well, the House should cure itself of infractions, deviant characters, dubious acts or just do their work right to earn “positive” publicity.
That said, we as journalists should also be humble and candid enough to subject ourselves to just scrutiny. It’s in the interest of good journalism for those doing a stellar job to mentor others and uplift the overall industry standards.
I have other dissenting views, however. First, the frontline journalists argue that Parliament’s is a capricious act devoid of logic and a scheme to substitute them with rookies. That’s not entirely accurate unless editors choose to assign newcomers as replacements. There are experienced reporters on editors’ lists to deploy, who know the difference between a motion, bill, an Act of Parliament and law; committee and plenary sessions; rules of procedure; and, do read the Hansard, ministerial policy statements and other parliamentary reports.
The legitimate argument that current journalists covering the beat should be making, and one I can subscribe to if backed by evidence, is that they are a gem for their newsrooms because years of experience has enabled them to cultivate sources and trust among staff and MPs, resulting in exclusives. And that they cannot weave similar stories when out of the House, an unlikely scenario. That is before factoring in the high attrition rate among MPs every election cycle, requiring journalists’ fresh encounters in every new Parliament. Or being institutional repositories such as Helen Thomas (whom veteran journalist Vukoni Lupa-Lasaga cited in a comment on a Uganda Journalists’ Facebook group thread), who, as a White House correspondent for 37 years, covered eight American Presidents.
Experience has no value in itself unless applied resourcefully to a positive purpose, in this case quality news.
Second, that it’s a foul scheme by officials wary of critical reporting to enlist a crop of pliant journalists to cover the House. No. Only journalists themselves can choose to be weak-kneed, not a source or institution they cover.
And the last combative difference of opinion is that Parliament is arrogating to itself through the backdoor the prerogative to sieve individuals eligible to cover it. That’s a partial truth. By routinely accrediting journalists to cover proceedings — an exercise that involves the exercise of power to approve and reject applicants — Parliament has in practice already been deciding which journalist can or cannot report from inside the House. This invalidates the claim that it is a nascent practice.
The truth is that beats such as Parliament, police and courts are equivalents of improvised explosive devices within newsrooms. They draw wedges and or ascribe values of importance, even power, among reporters while editors routinely face accusations of favouring those they deploy “where the news is ready”.
That journalists on such beats are loathed by some colleagues within newsrooms is not in contest, particularly where editors pile pressure by evaluating reporters’ performance based on story count.
This is why rotation of journalists on beats, in some cases and without the need for external prodding, is welcome, especially if fraternisation with sources is past the elbow.