Reflections on Ugandan press coverage of Covid-19

By John Baptist Wasswa

In terms of news values, drama, impact or consequence, and human interest have never occupied the print media in Uganda in such profound ways as during the Covid-19 pandemic that hit the world in January 2020. 

In December 2019, the coronavirus was reported in Wuhan, China. On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organisation declared it a public health emergency of international concern, and on 11 March it was upgraded to a pandemic.

The first stories that appeared in the New Vision were sympathetic to China, framing the country as troubled but in charge, and deserving of our support. Indeed, one picture published in February featured President Yoweri Museveni with the Chinese Ambassador to Uganda, Mr Zheng Zhuqiang, both holding a poster with words “Wuhan Jiaou” or “Wuhan, Hang in there”. On 4 March the ambassador wrote a full-page article in the New Vision titled, “China scores victories in Coronavirus fight”.

Even as Uganda started isolating visitors from China for special checks and classifying countries according to their Covid-19 risk status, the New Vision published an editorial opposing a travel ban on China and urged support for China especially during the crisis. The Covid-19 story was still far away. The ACME survey report on coverage of Covid-19 noted the paucity of reports in January and February. 

In any case, Uganda had its more urgent challenges: swarms of locusts had invaded the north east from Kenya and Lake Victoria waters were rising rapidly, bursting its banks in many areas including in Kenya. These two disasters should have alerted the media in Uganda to ask how prepared the country was to handle emergencies. 

Covid-19 quickly became a regional and local story in March as it spread fast and wide even in Africa. New Vision columnist Opiyo Oloya, writing from Canada, urged Uganda to make an audit of its health units to ensure that each hospital had the necessary capacity, especially ambulances, in case Covid-19 broke out in Uganda. Kenya recorded its first victim mid-March and Uganda went into panic mode. 

Covid-19 became a cover story. ‘Stay Home — Museveni advises’ was the first Covid-19 splash in the Uganda papers. Then came a series of protective measures and impact stories in all papers: tightening screening of persons arriving at borders; effect on schools, public transport, fear of food shortage, and generally fear of the unknown. 

The media in general did not question the country’s preparedness and the effectiveness of systems in place. In a time of crisis, the media gave the government the benefit of the doubt. However, the media became suspicious when an American professor, Sarfaraz Niazi, was taken to Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga with a project to set up a factory and produce hand sanitizer in a short time. Prof. Niazi had offered Uganda the copyright to his sanitizer invention, which had reportedly been approved in the United States. Speaker Kadaga later took Prof. Niazi to President Museveni to promote the sanitizer proposal. The meeting prompted many reactions including one from the Uganda Medical Association, which cautioned the Speaker against being misled. Through publications of commentaries and opinions, the media kept the government under watch. But other controversies were to come.

The media also created awareness through relaying messages of government, civic, cultural and religious leaders on the need to guard against Covid-19. There were powerful headlines too: Schools to close; Shutdown of public transport; Churches, Mosques to close; Private cars stopped; Lockdown and curfew.  Of course, there have been wartime disruptions in Uganda but not in peace time. The newspapers should have published some features on some of the low moments in Uganda’s history. 

The media, especially newspapers, informed the country on all developments. Indeed the media were included among the essential workers during the lockdown that started late March 2020. The survey observes that news items were predominant during this period accounting for 76.5% of stories. There were opinions and commentaries too.  However, faced with a threat of this magnitude the country needed the media to provide some explainers. Many questions demanded answers, which only journalists were best placed to give. 

  • Is the Covid-19 strain in Uganda the same as elsewhere; did it mutate?
  • How are Covid-19 patients treated in Uganda? More recoveries, no deaths. What are we doing differently?

The challenge in most newsrooms, including big ones, is the absence of strong health desks with specialised health reporters and editors. These can report effectively on epidemics and health disasters. They also develop networks of sources in different fields of medicine. In times of crisis, reporters depend on those contacts known to them personally. 

One would have wished that at least some stories should have been sourced from China, given the number of Ugandans in that country, even in Wuhan where the disease first appeared. Incidentally several Ugandans posted their stories on social media. Even the Uganda Ambassador to China could have been reached for comments. 

The Survey did not specifically bring out the use of pictorial power and cartoons in reporting the COVID-19 story. New Vision, the Daily Monitor and Bukedde published some quite powerful pictures. These included the following:

  • Distribution of posho and beans in Kampala and suburbs.
  • Market women sleeping in markets due to government restrictions on movements.
  • Daily Monitor’s 14 April double spread of odd images of Easter. These included Pope Francis giving his Urbi et Orbi blessing to an empty St Peter’s Basilica; a Brazilian priest streaming his one-man service in a church where pews were full of pictures of his parishioners away at home.
  • Pictures of patients ferried on wheelbarrows after failing to get travel permits from resident district commissioners.
  • Mbale District Police Commander Ahimbisibwe holding a baby delivered by an officer who had rushed to hospital after an SOS call during curfew.

The East Africa Project

One notable gap was the very little reportage of the pandemic in the East African region. Media houses in Uganda do not have desks dedicated to covering the East African region. One would have expected newspapers to push for a regional approach, sharing of resources and expertise within the region. The survey also noted the few articles written about East African countries and their Covid-19 situation. 

Ironically it was the many truck drivers who tested positive that awakened Uganda to the realities in the region and the need to work together to solve common problems. Media houses will need to invest in creating regional networks to understand the region, to influence governments and possibly undertake joint media projects and collaborations. 

In terms of reporting work, the newspapers should undertake investigative projects to complete stories they owe to the public: the updates on the face masks; the sanitizer project by Prof. Niazi; the beans scandal in the Office of Prime Minister; the public donations for Covid-19; human rights concerns including police and brutality of local defence unit personnel. Above all, they must follow the money: donations from the public; acquisitions approved by Parliament and loans and grants from bilateral and multilateral sources.

Readers will love more profiles too of individuals who have made a difference; of entities such as the Uganda Virus Research Institute; of people who have recovered from Covid-19 to tell their stories.

The future of media

The coronavirus has destabilised many aspects of life. In the media in Uganda, several media houses have laid off staff. The New Vision has both announced redundancies and slashed salaries. NMG Uganda also announced temporary salary cuts. But it is also true that media houses had planned major restructuring, which the pandemic gave chance to.

In the circumstances, media houses should consider retaining in some arrangement the good journalists that have left for corporate and civil society jobs. They can be called up to beef up the health desk on short term contract. Secondly, media houses and trainers should consider training subject experts as journalists. They will bring freshness and new expertise to the media. 

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About the Author:

John Baptist Wasswa is a journalism trainer and media consultant. He is a former managing editor of Daily Monitor and news editor of The New Vision. 

 

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