On 8 April 2020, Dr Peter Mwesige, ACME’s executive director, spoke with NTV’s Josephine Karungi on journalists’ safety while covering Uganda’s enforcement of measures to fight COVID-19 and related issues. The interview came in the wake of ACME’s issuance of a statement condemning the assault on several journalists by security services since Uganda declared a lockdown last month. Below is the interview, condensed for clarity:
Josephine Karungi: I saw a statement that you posted earlier and so I wanted to get your thoughts on what has been happening in the country ever since this pandemic started especially in line with the journalists, and I think one of the biggest things has been the attacks on the journalists, the ones that have been beaten up. I think they are seven or so now?
Peter Mwesige: I think generally speaking the media have done very well in the circumstances. I think they have tried to bring truth to the population, accurate information, wherever possible. It is most unfortunate that some security forces have taken it upon themselves to assault journalists in circumstances that are really not understandable because the president has been very clear for the first time in a very long time. He has been very friendly to the media. He has not called the media enemies. He has basically acknowledged the media as an essential service. So, I don’t understand why his soldiers, LDUs [local defence unite personnel], etc., can go around beating people yet the fountain of honour has actually acknowledged them as an essential service.
Karungi: What do you think journalists should do? How do they go about their work and also protect themselves? I mean you have a curfew that starts at 7 p.m. — we have bulletins beyond 7 p.m., people have to put newspapers to bed.
Mwesige: First of all, dead journalists cannot tell stories. Journalists should protect themselves before they can serve the public. They should take precautions; they should steer clear of real trouble. I mean if you see police shooting indiscriminately or beating people kiboko, stay far away. But we are also hoping that the coronavirus national task force understands the importance of having a free media that can actually relay accurate information to the public. Reporters have identity cards and passes. They should be allowed to go about their work. For Christ’s sake, there are so many people — sons of dignitaries and rich Ugandans — who are driving all over the place with passes; isn’t it possible to allow journalists who are giving us information to have the same privilege?
Karungi: I think now more than ever journalists are needed to pass on this information because if you don’t have newspapers, TV, how are you going to tell the public to follow the ministry of health guidelines?
Mwesige: Absolutely, as the president himself said a few days ago the media, quite frankly, are as essential as [electricity distributor] UMEME, [water parastatal] NWSC or even health. Without the media, there would be complete chaos here. We have got to sieve through all this misinformation. And it is only through media like [NTV] that we are able to say: no, this is misinformation, this is fake news, this is actually true. Without the media we would be in much bigger trouble. So, I shudder when I see people chasing journalists and other people who are working in the media. We hope that the government can extend more protection to journalists. We were very happy when the Minister of ICT [Judith Nabakooba] a few days ago came on national TV and said she was instructing RDCs in the countryside to ensure that upcountry journalists have access wherever they want to go because these guys are the ears and eyes of society, they are the ones bringing us the news about what’s going on around us, they have got to be protected.
Having said all that, I am hoping that we don’t take the protection offered to the media by the state to mean that we should not question what the government is doing in our name. I think it is also important that we remain critical: you ask questions, tough questions. What is going on? Is this the best way of solving some of these challenges? Some of these directives have had some gaps and It is important that you have a media that is able to ask questions, able to offer a platform to those who can actually offer better alternatives. So, I think it is important not to give a free pass to officialdom. Ask questions — whether it is the president, minister of health, World Health Organisation. There is a lot of uncertainty. Let us all be a part of this story. Of course, I’m not in any way urging you and your friends to give space to all manner of characters who are spewing nonsense in the name of freedom of expression, no. I’m just saying we must allow legitimate debate to thrive.
Josephine: How do journalists keep safe? And this is not about the violence, but what we are actually dealing with.
Mwesige: I have seen some of my friends in the media do crazy things including going out to cut their hair in all manner of [barber shops]. The first thing we should do is to lead by example. We have been told to stay at home, then told that you guys in the media are an essential service. Nobody has said that because we are essential we should now be going all over the place jumping round, jogging, etc. Journalists should try and limit their movements to only those places where they have to find information about what is going on around us, important information. You don’t have to be in the market unless you have a story or you want food from the market. You don’t have to be in a hospital unless you have a story from the hospital, but also when you are in the hospital protect yourself: have some mask, have some protective wear, stay a distance, maintain this social distance of 4 metres. May be the ministry should do more in terms of telling us, including journalists, to try and keep our distances. I’m hoping that, Josephine, you are going to do more of these kinds of interviews where you don’t have to have [someone] in the studio.
Karungi: What is your advice to media owners? What kind of support can they give the journalists who are out in the field?
Mwesige: We understand that the media are a business but if there was a time when you are needed to really play and support the public interest mission of journalism, this is the time. I think media owners should forget about profits for now and rise to the occasion.
Karungi: I think there are big questions on that. When you speak about profits then there is also the fear of what it is going to be like for journalists, a lot of journalists could lose their jobs at the end of all of this.
Mwesige: Absolutely, there is going to be some reckoning at the end of it, this is early days. There is no doubt that the media are going to be as hit as very many other businesses. We are hoping, again, that the government, in its wisdom, will be able to understand that some of these businesses are so critical to the functioning of our society that we cannot afford to plant them in the same basket as we put the others. There may be a case for some kind of support to the media as long as the media owners and managers are organised and can make their case. I hope that parliament and [the executive] can really listen when it comes to that case being made.
Karungi: What would you like to tell the public in this very critical time?
Mwesige: The public, first of all, should listen to the ministry of health and the World Health Organisation. Let [members of the public] not make themselves experts. They should provide information when they hear things they are not sure of, but they should not take themselves as experts. The public, above all, should stop passing around, disseminating, false information. This business of sharing things you have not verified on social media, please stop. It is really doing us a lot of harm because instead of you journalists spending time doing real legitimate stories that can help us, you are spending your time trying to fact-check things which are [patently] false. So, the public can play a real big role here. Let us verify information before we share it. Is what the government doing in our name actually okay? Is that the best way forward? Can’t we do this differently? Those are legitimate questions. I don’t think that we should just sit down like puppets and wait for the [master]. I think it is our right to ask what is being done in our name.