By Joachim Buwembo
On this occasion when everybody is talking about press freedom, we might as well expose the culprits who are making the loudest noise and diverting attention from themselves as the biggest abusers – the pressmen and women.
Journalists today pose the greatest threat to media freedom and it is about time they got exposed. Today, they can have their way; enumerate their colleagues who got beaten in the crossfire as political players fought their routine wars; bring out those photos of a policeman beating a cameraman; but tomorrow they will get back to their usual business of abusing media freedom. How?
If press freedom is about freedom of the press to gather and disseminate information to the public, then what can we say about a journalist who uses that freedom to hide information from the public? We can rant about an occasional broken camera, an injured leg or a torn blouse as we do the rather simple thing of jumping into the melee between police and political activists. Let us rant because it is not nice to have your camera broken and your behind kicked with a police boot. We can abuse the police spokesperson for explaining the force’s side of the story. But what about the daily concealment of information that journalists engage in, in exchange for money, yes, money? Is it not a bigger abuse of the press freedom?
Let us put this bluntly. If professional Ugandan journalists did not cover a couple of riots between Kizza Besigye’s supporters and police, the public would still get to know about them, thanks now to phone cameras and social media. But when journalists do not report about the blatant plunder of the country’s resources and taxes – as they usually don’t – the public won’t get to know about these.
Ever since the economy got liberalised two decades ago, big players came from outside to replace the state in running strategic sectors. The public however does not get to be told about the anomalies in the operations ranging from the criminal fraud and tax evasion, to the immoral annual repatriation of trillions of shillings without ever thinking of selling shares to nationals on the country’s stock exchange that hardly boasts of a dozen companies listed. Why don’t the excesses of the big foreign companies get reported in the Ugandan media? Because they advertise in the media. In other words, the media managers are conniving with the multinationals to abuse the freedom of the press to give vital information the public about abuses in the economy.
In the past few years, I am only aware of The Observer newspaper which has made commendable efforts at investigating the milking of Uganda by multinationals. The other Ugandan media houses could as well be suspected of being party to the abuse by their inaction and refusal to inform Ugandans about the economic sabotage.
What about the chronic robbery of those taxes that get collected? Take the more recent example of the Katosi road scandal. The public only got to know about the stolen billions long after the theft because journalists did their best to conceal the information by abusing the freedom of the public to know what was going on. Possibly up to a billion shillings of the stolen billions was ‘eaten’ by journalists, who directly connived with the thieves to conceal the information. A source close to the minister who punched a journalist at court told me ‘their’ version of why the minister lost it.
Apparently, the minister who considers himself innocent and knows much more about the Katosi robbery than he can say publicly, was infuriated that the people who should be in the dock instead of him have bribed the press so heavily that the public may never get to know the real thieves. So when he emerged from court and the first person he saw was this reporter aiming her camera at him, he just got so mad and punched her. (He settled with her out of court and reportedly gave her family the real story of the Katosi swindle and cover – the story that journalists who yell about press freedom have done their best to conceal.)
Collection of cash from criminals to conceal information is certainly a more frequent abuse of media freedom than injuries journalists sustain while covering clashes between political activists and the police. But of course a photo of a journalists being kicked by a cop is more sensational and easier to capture than that of a journalist pocketing a few million shillings from a thieving bureaucrat. The latter is more frequent.
Another form of press freedom abuse which is far more frequent but subtle is journalists’ refusal to give basic quality service to their audiences. This arises out of journalists’ refusal to do a thorough job which would distinguish them from rumour mongers. The refusal of journalists to get all relevant information for their stories, the refusal to get educated about the sector they purport to cover, are deep insults journalists inflict on their audiences. A day in any newsroom in Kampala today can leave a serious observer in tears. For while all reporters can have access to internet resources including ‘Uncle Google’, they simply will not gather the necessary background to better inform themselves about the topic they are covering, even if not for publication. Some sources often get shocked when on accepting to be interviewed, they have to explain basics of the subject at hand to a reporter who never bothered to first read up about it before seeking the interview. So journalists are not only abusing their audiences, they are also abusing sources. And above all, they are abusing the trust the public has put in them of bringing forward the truth.
Yes. The biggest casualty in this abuse of media freedom by journalists is truth. It is a much bigger abuse of press freedom than what happens at scenes of political demonstrations.