Spike story - before they spike you

November 25, 2005

You're a political journalist on the trail of a story. Do you toe the party line or risk writing your own death warrant? Ivor Gaber faces the tricky task of training reporters in war-torn Uganda

"The worst problem is when the soldiers and the police beat you up because you've done a report that their political bosses didn't like,"

said a journalist speaking to me in Gulu, the main town in Uganda's war-torn North. This is not an atypical response to the question I have been posing to journalists across the country: "What's the biggest difficulty you face in reporting politics and elections?"

Tough as life might be for political journalists in the UK, even the dastardly new-Labour spin machine never went quite as far as ordering the Old Bill to duff up bolshie journalists. So any expertise I might have gained in the UK as a scholar and practitioner has not fully equipped me to advise the courageous and woefully underpaid journalists of Uganda on how to fulfil their professional obligations - and stay alive.

These conversations have been taking place in the context of a journalists'

training programme I am overseeing. It is part of an ambitious project called the Uganda Radio Network, which is funded by a number of European governments, including the UK's. In the long term it intends to improve the quality of journalism in Uganda; in the short term it aims to provide an independent and reliable source of news in the run-up to the country's elections next year. And never was it more needed, as the recent arrest of opposition leader Kizza Besigye on charges of treason and rape, and subsequent rioting in Kampala, shows.

Radio is the main means of mass communication in Uganda. There are more than a hundred FM stations across the country that create a lively news culture, providing good coverage of their own localities. And, thanks to the internet, virtually all of them keep their listeners up-to-date with world events (courtesy of foreign providers such as the BBC and CNN).

However, their coverage of events in other parts of Uganda is patchy at best.

The URN project involves the setting-up of a national news agency based in Kampala (viewable at www.urn.co.ug and live since the beginning of November with more than 20 radio stations now subscribing to it) and a nationwide training programme that aims to upgrade the skills of about 200 freelance radio journalists. The training courses are intended to create a reservoir of freelancers who will provide the backbone of URN's nationwide coverage and, by improving the quality of what they offer, help to raise standards of journalism across the country.

The courses have two key themes: to introduce Ugandan radio journalists to new recording and editing technologies, and to provide them with alternative approaches to reporting politics and elections. Easier said than done.

Politics in Uganda is a distant cousin to politics as practised in the UK.

Leave to one side the country's bloody history, its politics lacks what many would regard as the essential prerequisites for a democratic polity.

First, most leading politicians appear to have similar backgrounds - they begin as rebels fighting in the bush and then, after they win or switch sides, become officers in the Ugandan army. As a result, it is never difficult to see the khaki poking out from beneath the politician's civilian white shirt. Similarly, most senior army officers seem to be playing a political game or have indicated that they intend to play one in the near future.

Second, the language of political discourse is violent and intemperate.

There are no "opponents", only "enemies"; no "differences of policy", only "traitors" and "infiltrators"; and there are never "legitimate" winners and losers of elections, only the triumph of the group that has flouted the election rules more successfully than its opponents.

And, third, despite the plethora of political parties, policy differences between them are either microscopic or non-existent. If Tony Blair thinks that the media in the UK is personality obsessed, he should try Uganda.

Teaching Ugandan journalists how to do political coverage is, therefore, a learning experience, as much for me as it is for them and particularly in those areas affected by Uganda's long-running war with the bloodthirsty dissidents of the Lord's Resistance Army. This war, which in recent weeks alone has claimed the lives of two Britons, is one of the world's cruellest but also one of the most enigmatic.

It's the cruellest because virtually the entire population of the North has been herded into depressing, overcrowded camps "for their own protection"; and every night thousands of children walk long distances to sleep in safety in Gulu town, for fear of being abducted into the LRA and used as child soldiers, domestic servants or sex slaves.

To make matters worse, there is almost as much fear and mistrust of the Ugandan army as there is of the rebels. A recent report by Human Rights Watch made it clear that here was an army out of control, wreaking havoc and violence on an innocent and abused population.

The war is enigmatic because everyone tells you that it could end tomorrow if the Government wanted it to. The argument runs that, because the Government fears the military, it has no motivation to end the war because armies need wars and they also provide plenty of opportunities for graft.

In this context, "normal" political reporting is, to put it mildly, difficult. As part of the training process we invite a local politician to take part in a press conference.

This enables the journalists to practise asking questions and putting together radio reports. It also provides hungry freelancers (the average fee per story is 60p) with the possibility of selling stories generated by the press conference to the local and national media.

At the recent training course in Gulu, the press conference guest was the chairman of the district, who is also the local boss of the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement.

He provided me with the full flavour of Ugandan politics. In the space of just 45 minutes he: n Announced his surprise candidacy for the Presidency n Said there would be an inquiry into allegations that NRM party youths, armed with automatic weapons, had been arrested at an opposition rally

  • Denied that he'd pulled a gun on an opponent but conceded that his bodyguard might have
  • Claimed that when he talked about his opponents being subject to the "laws of the jungle", he was not threatening them, merely likening them to animals
  • Denounced the UN Security Council, on the eve of its visit to Gulu, for not taking an interest in the war in Northern Uganda
  • Defended himself against allegations of corruption involving two entirely separate cases.

Given that the chairman was speaking in the presence of an armed guard and had a firearm-shaped bulge around his waist, I have to praise the journalists for the robustness of their questions. However, they told me later that it was only the presence of an "international observer" (me) that gave them the courage to go for the jugular and said they still feared the consequences.

So will the training programme transform Ugandan radio journalism? Probably not. Will it play a small part in dragging Uganda away from its present high-tensile politics and media, which provide a worrying backdrop to the 2006 presidential and parliamentary elections? Possibly.

As one of the trainees told me at the end of the workshop in Gulu: "We won't be able to do everything you've suggested all the time, but at least when we're not doing it we'll know what we should be doing, and maybe next time we will."

Ivor Gaber is emeritus professor of broadcast journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London. The project is being run by a British-based media organisation, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting ( www.iwpr.net ).

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