NBS TV’s Lukwago vs Opondo altercation: Why media houses should embrace the safeguarding culture

By John Baptist Imokola

When I was a morning show host on WBS TV, one guest took us by surprise by appearing in the studio with his pistol. He was the only guest on the show and the risk on whoever he would debate with was absent. 

As host, however, this was still a threat and would affect the direction the discussion would take. I alerted my producer, who was brave enough to tell the guest that guns were not allowed in the studio and that he would have to leave his pistol with security. After a short resistance, we managed to convince him and he obliged. It was later discussed in management and it was agreed as policy that all guests, whatever their status, would have to leave all arms at the security checkpoint before entering the studio.

When I watched the live altercation between the Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago and the Director of the Uganda Media Centre, Ofwono Opondo, while appearing on NBS TV’s The Frontline, on 28 July 2022, my WBS TV memories came back fresh. And beyond these memories, what happened on NBS TV highlights the issue of safeguarding – a new concept that I learnt recently. 

In the organisational context, safeguarding refers to proactive measures put in place to keep people safe from harm, abuse, or neglect from risks created by the organisation’s activities. The idea is that if the organisation did not exist or did not undertake these particular activities, then the risks or threats would not be there. 

In the case of The Frontline, NBS TV invited Lukwago for the show. If it did not, he would not have met Opondo in the studio at that time. The station also hosts Opondo as a Frontliner, and if they did not have him, then probably this altercation would not have taken place. And by offering a platform for the show, NBS TV not only brought the two into contact with each other, but also exposed the other guests to the situation on the show. 

I have seen some sections of the public urging Lukwago to sue NBS TV for what happened. Whether the legal argument can succeed in this matter or not, the media house cannot run away from its safeguarding responsibility. This is because what transpired only happened because NBS TV and The Frontline created and provided the space and time for it to happen. 

The incident is a timely reminder that media houses need to pay attention to safeguarding and put in place measures to ensure the physical and emotional safety and wellbeing of everybody involved in its programming. This can be done through awareness, developing safeguarding policies to prevent and manage cases, creating internal mechanisms for addressing safeguarding issues when they arise, proper vetting of people the organisation engages with, as well as having a clear means through which external interventions can be called in to address a safeguarding issue. 

Although these interventions will not necessarily stop all threats and risks, they create an environment of awareness, open discussion and seeking redress in cases of breach.

From the NBS TV incident, it is evident that talk-show hosts and presenters need training on safeguarding, so that they are aware of the risks and threats, and how to deal with them when they arise. The Frontline host did not sense the danger as quickly as he should have. Although the situation was saved by the technical team, at least to avoid the audience from seeing what transpired, the moderator did not expect such a risk to one of his guests. 

Yet this is not an isolated case. We have seen incidents in which some guests have attacked talk-show hosts. Media houses should therefore interest themselves in training their personnel who interact with different members of the public on safeguarding issues, and how to deal with them when they arise. Memories are still fresh of a seemingly mentally ill man ‘attacking’ a female journalist who was reporting live on TV on the streets of Kampala.

One way of providing safeguarding mechanisms is through sharing relevant information about the risks one could cause to others, as well as how to deal with a safeguarding risk when it comes up. 

The other guests on The Frontline, ICT and National Guidance Minister, Dr. Chris Baryomunsi, and former Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Winnie Kiiza, did not seem to anticipate what was going on. In fact, under normal practice, guests should know the safeguarding policy of the media house hosting them, and should sign to abide by it and commit to all its relevant provisions as a condition for being hosted. The risk for media houses not doing this may lead to some guests declining invitations because they fear what happened to the Lord Mayor from happening to them. Away from safeguarding, this will undermine open and constructive debate, which is a core foundation for democratic practice and the very reason for the media’s existence.

The matter has been reported to police, and reports say it is being investigated. Away from the legal dynamics, we have a good lesson from this case. From a safeguarding point of view, it is the station that brought Lukwago to a risky environment, and whatever happened to him is a direct result of the activities of NBS TV. Although this may not be argued legally, it plays into the image of the media house. 

Media houses, like other organisations, need to be aware of and take responsibility for what happens as a result of their activities or business. Promoting a safeguarding culture should not be limited to organisations that deal with conventional vulnerable groups. We can all be vulnerable depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in. 

John Baptist Imokola is the Programme Officer- Grants and Fellowships at African Centre for Media Excellence. 

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