Uganda: Top Misreported Stories of ‘09

Of all the stories that got covered this year, what would top the list of the most grossly misreported? Few, if any, would edge out the death of Brian Bukenya, son to Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, and that of former army commander Maj. Gen. James Kazini.

They were part of a spate of deaths, and near deaths, carrying on from the last weeks of October into November. Save for Kazini’s, all the rest were a result of three road accidents that claimed the lives of upwards of 20 people including Brian’s and President Museveni’s advisor Fr. Albert Byaruhanga.

The way those deaths were covered revealed a far more frightening threat within sections of our news media than our current repressive state might ever pose to us. This threat  combines self-censorship, pandering to and reproducing the official government statement(s), and cultural attitudes of singing the praises of the dead whether they exist or not. About self-censorship though, some people might argue the state already planted, watered and weeded that seed and like a contented farmer has no need of constantly returning to the garden when it comes into its full bloom.

Granted, death in Uganda can’t boast such a huge shock effect on us. We seem to have become numb to it either because of our long history of losses, most particularly through unnecessary conflicts and wars, or because we go about our daily lives with death so close to us, from preventable diseases to reckless driving, that we seem to have learnt to live with it.

You tell this from our unofficial standard way of condolence; that’s life [get over with it]. But then, every once in a while death easily shatters through that supposed numbness with such fury and abandon claiming in its trail powerful figures that seemed immortal to us forcing us into self-reflection about it. Kazini’s was one such death, the “immortal” figure that many eulogised practically as a military ‘virtuoso’.

For journalists and news media, there is reason to feel frightened at how we revealed, in the ensuing reportage of the two deaths, our deep acquiescence with the official version and the effects of tagging at the coattails of people we’ve ringed off as newsmakers.

From the day journalism chose as one of its mantras that if it bleeds it leads, we locked ourselves up in such difficult moral dilemmas as for instance reporting stories about loss, especially loss of human life. How do you extricate yourself from that shared sense of loss to ask the penetrating questions that are expected of you as a reporter? How do you balance your desire to write a guaranteed lead story, which is every reporter’s desire, against the nudging feeling you are turning into benefit another person’s loss?

Like people in the business of selling caskets, or services of funeral homes that are the craze now, what prayers should or does a reporter make every morning when he or she sets off to work? But then, can we really say these dilemmas were at play in the reportage of the deaths in question? We will begin with Brian’s, VP Bukenya’s son.

Brian, a country mourns. Really?

In summary, he was a 26-year-old recent graduate of Law who had signed on for military cadet training. At the end of which he was headed to the prestigious British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, or simply Sandhurst as it’s commonly known, an opportunity very few officers in the UPDF can boast of. Not even its commander-in-chief and Uganda’s long-serving President Museveni. To invoke a very Ugandan saying, he was well set on a path to fall in things if he hadn’t already, at least supposedly. Loved and admired by his father (a fact hitherto unknown and only revealed through his eulogies), Brian, who by the father’s own admission was his right hand man, was full of zest for life revealing to a friend how he was “working out something with Mzee [his father]” supposedly in line with his eagerness and ambition “to shape the future of this country.”

If you take out the fact that Brian was son to the vice president, what exactly is there to his name that qualified reporting that his death was “a loss to the nation”, that “the country was preparing for his burial”, and that “the nation grieves for a patriot whose works in reshaping its destiny were only in the making”? That last praise particularly evokes the kinds of criticism that were levelled against U.S. President Barack Obama for winning the Nobel peace prize simply because he made good proposals that would ensure peace on earth.

In what significant ways was Brian’s life different from other 26-year-olds; those he had graduated with from Law School or were attending cadet training with him, or for that matter any other 26-year-olds all over the country educated or not who wake up every morning and face head-on all manner of challenges in their lives, a good number of them caused by their own government, and yet determine to overcome them? Who tells their stories as patriots of their own lives but also that of their country, investing efforts in shaping their destinies and consequently that of their country? But even then, aren’t the 20s the ripe age for heady idealism anyway, when young men and women raging with hot blood and freshly acquired knowledge (those like Brian privileged enough to obtain an education) are preoccupied with dreams, desires and fantasies of taking over and changing the world? In what specific ways then did Brian stand out and above the expectations of his age bracket?

This is not anywhere to say the death of the VP’s son is no news and so there shouldn’t have been any coverage. It is more the follow up headline story, where coincidentally both the major dailies carried similar headlines, about Mr. Bukenya mourning the loss of what would have been his heir which touched off a heated debate on Facebook among mostly journalists. As one of the people in that debate put it, “I think to these guys [reporters and their editors perhaps] news is ‘ekyipya’, [what’s new] not actual news” and went on, albeit cynically, to predict how Kazini’s murder, which happened round about the same time, would be reported that, “Tomorrow’s headlines will be [James] Kazini (R.I.P) & then the next day will be the woman who’s done him in…” When you become such predictable as a news publication, you give off less reason for anyone to be interested in buying you. For many skimming through becomes enough, and that can be done for free.

We have essentially ringed off what we consider our so-called newsmakers and for as long as we run after them there was no way to avoid publishing bland stuff. Because what that essentially means is that we must pick whatever they drop. Sometimes, something really ‘juicy’ might slip out of their mouth or bags but most times it’s likely going to be something stale because our newsmakers, most of who are politicians or public officials, thrive at best on hiding all kinds of information and mixing it up with a tinge of weak manipulation and at worst on threats and intimidations. There are alternative stories that perhaps never get covered because we are preoccupied with running after our usual newsmakers or savers of the day if you will.

Covering ‘newsmakers’, covering ourselves

And the reason we do that, as a friend once pointed out to me, is because we’ve been bitten by the big city middle class bug, a scenario that replicates itself in almost every major capital of the world. In Washington DC for instance, the capital seat of progressive, liberal, first class journalism, the kind that should be emulated, it is increasingly becoming hard to distinguish between reporters and lobbyists. What appears to be holding the feet of those in authority to the fire only emerges as consequence to disagreement in opinion of the news organisation. More generally though, as reporters we might not like everything about our newsmakers, especially if they are politicians, but we come to see ourselves as one with them, with shared challenges and collective aspirations that urban life presses upon us. So in reporting about them we’re actually reporting about ourselves.

The issues we rally around as important are those that emerge out of our immediate environments, our surroundings and the way we view the world. We go ahead and make the false assumptions that those issues reverberate across the country. The very reason we qualify Brian’s death as a national issue and loss is because he’s close to us. We can see ourselves in him unlike another 26-year-old anywhere in the country also with full zest for life who, for one reason or another, passes on and is buried without even making a statistic because there was no need to have a post-mortem done on his or her body, if he or she was lucky to have lived near a health facility that does post-mortems and keeps records of the dead because as a country we haven’t shown much importance of any kind about keeping records.

We face the challenge to step back and figure out what really are the issues that Ugandans care about or those already close to them we can interest them with and then get on those and ‘force’ our newsmakers to explain themselves on those issues. That’s not as easy to do but who ever said the right things are equally easy to do? Of course, there will always be occasional events breaking that need to be covered, but if the news media’s primary focus is on those events, we’re not setting the agenda, as we like to puff ourselves, and nobody really cares about us. Evidence of that lies in the stagnant newspaper circulation figures which scream to us if only we could listen. Otherwise, we’ll always be running after our “newsmakers” and they’ll dictate, directly or otherwise, what gets into the paper. And this is already happening.

Many days now since Brian has been dead, we haven’t even moved to ask some glaring questions that would not only help us in understanding who Brian was, now that we’ve fallen over ourselves about him, but also more about his father and ultimately the absurdity of Ugandan life where largely any form of advancement be it in public life or the private sector is determined by a very simple criterion: whose child you are. And this from a government that once touted itself to be all inclusive, broad based and averse to sectarianism and patronage!

What were Brian’s own aspirations in relation to his father’s claims; how did he conceive of changing the future of this country? Given that the military is the least of places young graduates think about to find employment, what exactly motivated, inspired or pushed Brian to join the army? From those who know him so well, did he ever in his life harbour military ambitions? Given his father’s public political dramas, and the militaristic nature that is Uganda’s politics, might the two on the basis of their supposed closeness have mutually agreed it was politically strategic and safe to have a loyal listening post within the forces? How many of the other trainees along with Brian were headed to Sandhurst after the cadet course? Who was going to pick Brian’s tab at Sandhurst; his father or the government?

Up to this point, Brian Bukenya’s story has not been told yet. Besides the follow up story about the VP mourning the loss of an heir, which was to be expected (what would you expect a man to say of his most favourite child?), the others have been about conspiracies surrounding his death. Coverage of the VP son’s death couldn’t provide a better demonstration of what we get when we tag at the coattails of those we have ringed off as newsmakers.

Kazini, publicly despised and glorified in death

How about Kazini’s coverage? Perhaps more than any other military officer, this maverick soldier played out his exploits, both military and personal, as well as his struggles and failures, both as a career soldier and a human being like any other, in full public view. One could say nothing major about Kazini was hidden from the general public: from scoring major military victories to shunting all advice and letting Ugandan soldiers get mauled in their thousands in the D.R. Congo; from stirring storm after another everywhere he found himself in charge to clashing with almost everyone he found himself junior to; from falling from grace to grass and there finding himself literally fighting for his life (with a threat of being dismissed with disgrace from a profession he had committed his entire life to) to fighting for a woman. One could say Kazini had essentially written his life and military career’s story, the latter particularly being anything but illustrious. Yet, reporters and news outlets filing the first stories were all too easily caught up in ‘officialese’ (aka comment from the police and army), and as someone put it more eloquently digging into the familiar hyperbole, and overstating the praises and achievements of the dead that is typical of Ugandan society, remembering to try and absolve themselves much later when some of it really didn’t matter anymore.

But even then, in Kazini’s case, as with Brian’s, we have not asked some of the most pertinent questions. For instance, why did Kazini feel compelled to work so hard, throw everything he had into his military career, clash with everyone around him all to gain the acceptance of the commander-in-chief? Might Kazini have learnt from early on that unless you were part of the inner circle your only way to the top was through laying your life on the line and demonstrating a fierce loyalty to the C-I-C? After all, one of the most eminent columnists in Uganda John Nagenda has written saying that Kazini once remarked to him how he, Kazini, wasn’t from the fighting family.

Could it have been his modest education (before a forced master’s degree in Strategic Studies in the mid-2000s) which he was compensating for and as such despised those who were more educated? What does that say about the internal dynamics within the army? Might there be other officers in the UPDF who desire and are qualified to move up the ladder but have been denied that deserved opportunity but then find riding roughshod over anything the Kazini way too cumbersome? Some of these issues are not necessarily new. Some might even have been reported before. But since we like pegging issues to circumstances with a fresh currency, wouldn’t it be better to return these issues into the public discussion rather than quickly dash for “officialese”?

We make a mistake after being cushioned by the hefty advertising shilling when we don’t show much concern that many people aren’t reading what we publish. The circulation figures don’t lie. We might blame it on everything else – from a poor reading culture; to literacy levels, which have always been rising, mark you, because even the numbers of graduates has always been on the raise; to the cost of the publications, even when people spend much more money drinking than the cost of even the most expensive publication; and now to free newspaper reviews on FM stations and on the internet – but ourselves and the stuff we publish. We forget that the readers and the public are our greatest bastion if and when we come into the most excruciating hour of our test when the state closes in on us attempting to snuff out our life, both personally and professionally.

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