Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Many journalists in the region are said to be compromised by illegal payments from politicians and government officials.
The revelations surfaced last week in connection with World Press Freedom Day on May 3, during which both government officials and journalists discussed press-related issues at the Lira Media Centre in northern Uganda.
“I had an assignment to cover the current peace talks … in Juba between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but I ended up with a political story,” said radio journalist Caesar Odongo.
Odongo said he preferred to produce a story about a politician rather than peace talks because he knew he would be offered a private payment for the story.
Another journalist told IWPR that he had ditched stories about peace and justice issues in the north in exchange for a bribe.
“I [compared] what my media organisation pays per story, and found that what a source [would] give [me] was [better],” said the reporter, who preferred not to be named.
The journalist said he was unhappy with his decision, but felt forced to make it because of the severe poverty that affects everyone in northern Uganda. Because of this, he went on, many stories that should be written or broadcast are not.
“But this really pains me, because people are taking advantage of poverty in northern Uganda to bribe journalists, resulting in an information vacuum,” he said.
Although peace has returned to northern Uganda for the past two years as a result of the on-going peace talks between the government and rebels, little has been done to improve the economy.
Nearly 21 years of war have resulted in the displacement of an estimated 2 million people and the deaths of around 100,000, largely due to war-related causes. Nearly 50,000 have been abducted during the conflict, including men, women and children.
In the past decades, many northerners have become dependent on handouts from organisations such as the United Nations World Food Programme and a wide range of non-governmental groups.
This situation has created a culture of dependency, in which politicians with money exert influence by bribing journalists.
Peter Owiny, the mayor of Lira, told the Lira Media Centre that many journalists in the north depended on ministers and politicians to make ends meet.
“Many of our brothers and sisters, who are working with the media industry, have become public relations officers for politicians,” he said.
He said that often bribed journalists will call a radio station to defend a politician, usually on the popular talk shows.
Jimmy Akena, a Lira legislator, revealed that journalists often demand bribes from politician, for instance threatening to publish a damaging story unless they’re paid off.
“Many reporters have been on my neck, pretending to be chasing for my comment, but when you give them time they … want to extract money [by making] false allegations,” said Akena.
Akena said that one time he found his reputation damaged on some website, which he refused to name, that referred to him as being “useless”.
Despite the problems, others say they depend on the news media for the dissemination of critical information about the north.
Captain Deo Akiiki, spokesman for the 5th Division of the Ugandan army, said he works actively with all journalists in northern Uganda.
The image of the defense forces depends on effective media relations, he said, and doubted that newspapers, radio or television would sit on a good story just because they want money, as some people claim.
Regarding accurate reporting, Akiiki said that most journalists want to get their facts right. If they fail to do so, it is either because they have failed to do their research properly, or because people fail to provide them with the necessary information.
“Obviously, we must always protect classified information and never compromise security. But … we must be [as] forthcoming and helpful as we can when dealing with journalists’ queries,” he said.
“If we are not, and our uncommunicativeness results in an information vacuum, we will have little cause for complaint.
“We are all aware that [the media] are always under pressure to get stories and if our side is missing, only the [Ugandan army) will suffer.”
Some editors say they are aware of the problems faced by reporters, and act quickly if they suspect they are demanding money in exchange for favourable coverage.
Chris Banya, an editor with the Rupiny newspaper, which is owned by Uganda’s New Vision media organisation, said he has removed reporters who are suspected of killing stories for a bribe.
“Many have been sent home, and we shall continue suspending those found killing a story [they’ve been] assigned to follow,” he said.
Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained journalist in Uganda.
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