Coverage of the guerrilla war in Northern Uganda has consistently missed the clear religious undertones of the story, according to David Mukholi, Sunday editor of Uganda’s New Vision online news site. For 23 years, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the best-known faction in Uganda’s civil conflict, has garnered gory headlines for brutality against civilians and for its soldiers’ bizarre rituals that invoke Old Testament law. Joseph Kony, the LRA’s reclusive leader, wants to depose the Ugandan government and install a new government ruled by the Ten Commandments.
But despite the LRA’s ardent claims of Christian intentions and Divine blessing, Ugandans are convinced only of the devastation, desolation and death the uprising has brought.
“This is a case of name – character variance,” Mukholi told a gathering of journalists in Jakarta, convened by The Media Project. “Such contradiction between ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ tickles journalists’ instinct to investigate.”
“But instead of prompting in-depth inquiry of the LRA, the media largely restricted itself to reporting activities of the rebel group.”
Media became fixated on the horrors of the conflict, while ignoring the rebels’ deeper motivations, along with their religious imagery.
Mukholi turned a critical eye on his own news organization. New Vision, like much of Uganda’s media, worries about appearing hostile to religion, and so we avoid the topic, he said.
Instead, New Vision opted for a self-described objective approach to the story, which Mukholi admitted was worthwhile but doomed to fail.
The decades-long tragedy “was devoid of LRA’s side of the story,” Mukholi pointed out. “With only the civilian population – who were victims of rebel brutality, captured LRA soldiers and government officials as sources, objectivity could not be obtained.”
Ugandan media simply wrote off the rebels as “diabolical thugs” unworthy of an audience. Only international media reported the rebels’ perspective.
If media had established better links to the rebels early on in the conflict, Mukholi argued, it would certainly have brought more of the LRA’s religious thinking to the public. And it would have made media claims of “objectivity” more compelling.
Ironically, the one-sided reporting and focus on brutality may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, Mukholi suggested. Some of the rebels tried to live up to the image of themselves they saw in the media.
In their bid to remain secular and objective, media avoided really digging for stories in the interplay of religion and politics, even when the opportunities were obvious.
Mukholi recalled that media ignored president Yoweri Museveni’s overtly religious November 2003 response to LRA massacres. Museveni began his remarks by quoting a Bible verse from the Gospel of John: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.”
In the wake of a 1995 rebel raid, officials found scraps of paper containing sections of the Koran written in Arabic. Ugandan media, quickly and without investigating, dubbed the rebels Islamic fundamentalists.
This rare case of forcing the religion angle of the story trapped subsequent reports in a misleading framework and became a brick wall blocking deeper investigation, Mukholi said.
The truth was that the raid was part of the genesis of an LRA splinter group that took the name the Allied Democratic Front. The group includes both Muslim and non-Muslim fighters.
The central issue remains Ugandan media’s commitment to a secular objectivity, Mukholi said. Media retain a profound reluctance to link religion to violent activities, even when the evidence is there.
Mukholi argues that critical questions about the LRA are still unanswered – religious questions. And a clear picture of the LRA can’t exist without these answers.
“Why the name LRA?”, Mukholi wanted to know. “Why an ex-alter boy leading it? Why the brutalities unleashed on innocent people? Why were the Biblical Ten Commandments the central principles of the rebels?”
“Media reported the What, Where, When, and Who of the ambushes, abductions and rapes," he said, "but reports were scanty on the Why.”