Saturday, January 22, 2011

Seminars, meetings show impact, but is it enough?

From the Parkville Luminary

NOTE: For photos from my Peace Journalism seminars, including the seminars/meetings listed below, click here.

GULU, UGANDA—I envy doctors, because they often know right away if they’ve done a good job, since their patient is either better or dead. For those of us in education, there is seldom such finality, such closure.

This is especially true of my work here in Uganda. Among other things, I am teaching seminars for radio journalists and announcers, helping them discover story-telling in a way that helps to minimize conflict and reduces the possibility of violence. This kind of training is especially urgent given that Uganda will hold its presidential and parliamentary elections in February. (Right--PJ follow up meeting, Soroti)

My Ugandan colleague and I have given 17 such seminars for journalists in the last seven months, and aside from scattered anecdotal reports, we were not really sure if we were making an impact. We found out last week.

In Soroti (eastern Uganda) and Gulu (northern), our peace journalism program convened day-long follow up meetings with journalists and announcers who had previously attended our seminars. Each was a regional meeting, drawing participants from multiple locations where seminars had been held.

At each meeting, after reviewing peaceful electoral reporting principles, I led the journalists in a small group exercise where they were called upon to list successes they’ve had since attending our seminar, and challenges they still face in doing the job. I held my breath during this exercise, worried that the challenges would far outnumber the successes. They didn’t.

The first journalists’ group, in Soroti, listed so many successes that I had a hard time fitting them on one page of my giant writing pad. Among other things, the radio professionals said that their newscasts and stories had improved in overall quality and flow; that their reporting was more fair and balanced than before, that they were making a special effort to give all parties a chance to respond to campaign issues; that they have started interviewing more average people and using their concerns to corner leaders; that they more thoroughly research their stories now; and that some have implemented comprehensive policies/guidelines at their radio stations, resulting in more consistency and professionalism.

I was especially glad to hear the seminar participants report that politicians have even changed their behavior, being more careful with what they say (since they’re now being held accountable for their words) while treating the journalists with more respect.

The former attendees of our seminars who gathered in Gulu a few days later made similar comments, citing an enhanced overall professionalism—better balanced stories, improved objectivity and accuracy, and no media-induced violence.

The reports given last week in meetings we organized of peace club members were equally gratifying. Last year, in 14 cities we visited, we gathered together community leaders with the idea that they might choose to form peace clubs and advocate for peace during this election season. In a few places, our suggestion was ignored. In most others, based on our recent meetings, the peace clubs have flourished. In Tororo and Gulu, we met with peace club members who reported a flurry of peace advocacy activities, including broadcasting weekly radio programs to discuss peace; going to campaign rallies, recording politicians, and later playing back those words in an effort to discourage divisive or violent speech; holding candidate forums and debates wherein personal attacks are forbidden; and forming committees to monitor media to ensure that they are not inciting violence. The Tororo Peace Club has even written some pretty peace poetry that is read daily on a local radio station. (Pix above right--Peace Club, Tororo).

Not being completely na├»ve, I know some of these reports from peace club members and journalists represent just typical Ugandan politeness—telling me what I want to hear, rather than reflecting actual reality. Still, I have heard enough positive reports from different sources that I can only reach the conclusion that the seminars for the journalists and peace club mobilizations are having a positive impact here in Uganda. Whether this means a violence-free election is yet to be seen.

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