Media Practitioners as Force for Social Change
Journalism in Uganda is an old profession and at the same time a new one. Most historical accounts indicate that the Mengo Notes was the first newsletter published in Uganda in 1900. The earliest attempts at Journalism were evangelistic in their orientation and originated from within the Catholic and Protestant establishments. Later though, because of the pressures of colonial rule, most publications turned political; addressing oppression, inequality and the need for independence. To counter this, the colonial government established its own publication in the different languages. The independent press was subsequently instrumental in the struggle that led to Uganda’s independence in 1962.
The first radio broadcast was in 1954 and for the first few years was dominated by British professionals and programmes. While the early print media were vigorously political and attempted to hold the colonial government accountable, the broadcast media remained mouthpieces of government. So right from the early years of Uganda’s existence, the print and broadcast media played different roles in society.
Briefly, the postcolonial governments between the 1960s and 1980s had their focus on national integration, so they built a media culture where diversity had to be strictly controlled in the national interest. This was done through persuasion, the law or brute force depending on the political temperature of the time. Diversity existed in music and sports, to a large extent, but political diversity was at best viewed with suspicion and at the worst of times punishable by death (James Bwogi, Clement Kiggundu etc). The broadcast sector in Uganda was not open to private entrepreneurs until 1993.
JOURNALISM TRAINING IN UGANDA
For a long time most journalism training was only available outside Uganda. Eventually the Institute of Public Administration’s School of Journalism was established mostly to train journalists for the government media. Otherwise, for a large part of our political history, journalism practitioners learnt on the job if they did not get an opportunity to train abroad.
Things have changed. Journalism training is offered at degree level in at least five universities in Uganda: (Makerere University, Uganda Christian University, IUIU, Kampala International University, Namasagali College). There are numerous schools offering certificates and diplomas in journalism as well.
Different NGOs also regularly conduct training in specialised areas like peace and conflict, corruption, population, democracy and governance, even elections and business reporting. The same NGOs also conduct training, needs assessment studies and some recurrent issues include lack of funding, lack of experts, lack of equipment and lack of access to the internet. While these are serious needs, they do not tell the whole story. Lack of training opportunities or resources is not the issue. The issue is lack of relevance.
The traditional view of what is expected of a journalist comes to us from the West. Traditionally, a journalist in a Western country (generally speaking), was expected to act as the eyes and ears of society. He/she was expected to inform and educate and also entertain society. He/she was also to see himself/herself as a watchdog over those that govern, keeping them in check and holding them accountable. In many cases a journalist was expected to mirror society, not to interpret it.
Journalism schools the world over tend to agree that good journalists should be objective, truthful, fair and accurate in their work. With the changes in media technology, some of these ethical values have come under fire. Consider the area of photography, where, with the computer photos can be manipulated to totally distort the truth. Objectivity has also been challenged as unattainable in some circles.
The above model of journalism took many things for granted:
• It assumed that those who govern are chosen ‘democratically’ and feel accountable to the people who elected them. They know that if they do not behave and the media demonstrates that they are not behaving, they can be sent out the same way they were brought in—through the ballot. In Africa, this is not always the case.
• It is assumed that society is enlightened and can take a range of information from various points of view, digest it and make ‘informed choices’ about their governance and their welfare because the social machinery to make this possible is in place. In a sense therefore, the media were expected to give supplementary not basic information because people go to school, they read and they use the internet. Again this cannot be assumed in most developing countries.
Many times in training journalists in Uganda, we take this model of journalism and journalism training from the West and run with it, without necessarily examining whether it makes sense in our circumstances. Many of our curricula are not regularly revised or subjected to the kind of scrutiny that would make them relevant and enable the products thereof to have an impact on society.
SO WHAT ARE JOURNALISTS TRAINED FOR?
We know that doctors are trained to prevent and fight disease, lawyers to represent people in court, engineers to build roads. What are journalists trained for? The related question is: What is peculiar to our context that we must address ourselves to in designing journalism curricula and training journalists? What should a relevant journalist know (knowledge) and be able to do (skills) and with what attitude, upon graduation from our programmes?
To be able to answer these questions, we need to remind ourselves of the challenges that await a journalist who dares to practice in most of the developing countries in Africa, such as:
• Low levels of literacy and a poor reading culture.
• A multilingual set up and increasing ethnic fragmentation (Uganda for example now has 80 districts and anywhere between 40 and 56 languages and dialects).
• A commercialised media whose priority tends towards profit.
• A predominance of a few commercially viable languages in spite of the multi-lingualism mentioned above.
• Persistent social problems like poverty, war, HIV-AIDS and other preventable diseases, factionalism, corruption (not to say that wealth, health and unity are totally non-existent but they are only part of the picture).
• A stormy political history; a shaky or ‘fledgling’ multi-party democracy both of which have a bearing on the atmosphere for media practice;
• An improving but still wanting policy and legal framework for the operation of the media. The limits of media freedom are still being defined.
These are daunting problems. Once it was easier for journalists in Uganda to attempt to address these problems because there was one radio and one TV channel speaking in unison. That has changed as there are over 80 radio stations and over 10 TV stations in operation in Uganda.
Should journalists simply mirror these social problems and leave it to society to make sense of them? If not, how do they go beyond a mirroring function and interpret these things for society without compromising essential (and traditional) journalistic values (like objectivity)?
How can the journalists we train go from mirroring to interpreting, to facilitating meaningful information and debate? And what should the kind of debate they facilitate aim to achieve? The purpose of political debate is to allow different ideas to compete and for “the best ideas to emerge” democratically. However, there are many forces currently working against this simple and straight-forward formula.
With the commercialisation of the media, most of the world’s media have decided that entertainment not deep debate and problem-solving must be on top of the media agenda. They have done their research and found that entertainment is what gives them value for money. This is particularly so in the commercial media but has also crept into the public media. The drive behind this is the commercialisation of a sector that used to be seen as a public service. We are rapidly adopting this entertain-entertain-entertain approach in most of our media. Should we, therefore, focus on training entertainers to be relevant? Is this where our society’s deepest need is?
If we choose to go counter-culture and prioritise information and education (and I know the line is thin), how do we do this in our current media environment? How do we train people to take the trouble to research deep and important stories that may never get published? How do we train people to produce features and documentaries in an age where sound-bites are preferred? How do we train people to bring out the voices and struggles of the oppressed in our own villages when society clamours for the sleazy details of Western celebrities? How do we go beyond traditional journalism to accommodate emphases like Behaviour Change Communication (BCC) in the media, to deal with issues like health, population and the environment that affect our communities?
HOW THEN SHALL WE TRAIN?
We need to harness the numerous training opportunities we now have to ensure that when someone comes out with a certificate in journalism and/or communication, they are relevant and that their work has an impact on real people. But we also need to train our journalists/communication professionals to be survivors; to find ways of being deep without being dull; of covering important issues in a way that even the business manager will not be able to resist. If they “can’t beat them” they must “join them!”
Journalism/communication training institutions need to:
• Keep a barometer on society to remain informed about the broader social needs;
• Constantly conduct research not just on training needs but also on the broader needs of real people in real communities;
• Cause students to reflect on their profession as a public service/ministry as opposed to or as well as a business or a job;
• Consult regularly with the stakeholders (not just parents and potential employers who are more than willing to offer advice on what is relevant, but also communities, policy-makers-those people we must touch to be able to have an impact).
• Seek to influence the environment within which journalists practice (like laws and policies) through their own contacts with policy-makers and law-makers.
• Cease to be passive consumers of ready-made curricula;
• Promote the production of relevant local content;
• Be open to strengthening emerging areas like Behaviour Change Communication/Strategic Communication on their curricula;
• Build partnerships with communities for work experience opportunities.
The first attempts at impacting society through the media in Uganda were based in the Church and were evangelistic rather than political in focus. These publications, however, later took on more overtly political issues. Perhaps there is only a thin membrane separating society’s spiritual and material needs and journalism/communication trainers must be alert to this thin membrane in the course of their work. This is where I find the model of our Lord Jesus Christ persuasive. He not only took time to understand what the needs of the people were, he put himself in their shoes and walked with them even as He helped them out of their problems. The Lord Jesus saw impact as holistic. He aimed at redeeming the whole person. Whether we are in a Christian institution or not, we should look for opportunities to introduce our students to our Master and his perspective on touching society. This will give them purpose, perspective, commitment and depth, enabling them to cause “sustainable” change through their work.