Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Confidence that peace journalism will prevail in Uganda

As elections unfold in East Africa, like the one happening in Uganda this week, thoughts drift to those awful days following the 2007 Kenyan election. 

Media-fueled post-election violence took a terrible toll in late 2007 and early 2008. 1,200 Kenyans were killed, many thousands injured, and over 300,000 people displaced, according to UNHCR statistics. 42,000 homes and businesses were looted or destroyed. The media, particularly local-language radio stations, played a significant role in the violence. According to IRIN Humanitarian News, “Inflammatory statements and songs broadcast on vernacular radio stations and at party rallies, text messages, emails, posters and leaflets have all contributed to post-electoral violence in Kenya, according to analysts. Vernacular radio broadcasts have been of particular concern... (From Peace Journalism Principles and Practices, Routledge Publishing/Taylor and Francis Books, to be published fall 2016)

With the Kenyan experience fresh in their minds, the Peace Journalism Foundation of East Africa and the Center for Global Peace Journalism launched an 11-month effort to train Ugandan radio reporters and editors in peace journalism prior to the 2011 Ugandan presidential election. Traveling 14,000 kilometers to every corner of the country, my training partner Gloria Laker and I worked with hundreds of journalists on peace journalism theory and responsible electoral reporting. The goal of the project was to prevent media induced or exacerbated violence at the time of the election. The project succeeded. There was no media fueled violence in 2011. A comprehensive survey of media practitioners at the project’s conclusion gave credit for the lack of media fueled violence to Gloria’s peace and electoral journalism project. 

Further, a number of peace journalism trainings in Kenya (several by Gloria Laker and myself in Eldoret and Nairobi, and others with Dr. Fredrick Ogenga at the University of Rongo) prior to the 2013 Kenyan election also had the desired result—an election devoid of media induced or exacerbated violence. (For the record, some have criticized the Kenyan media for going too far, and not reporting election irregularities in 2013 for fear of stoking violence--a practice not condoned by peace journalism).

On election day in Uganda this Thursday, Gloria and I believe that our trainings five years ago will still resonate with radio reporters and editors. However, even if our workshops are forgotten, it’s our hope that journalists will remember the lessons from Kenya in 2007 and from post-election violence in Uganda in 2006. 

The words I wrote during my first visit to Uganda resonate as much today as when I first penned them in 2009. 

“As I peered out at the Ugandan radio journalists in my peace journalism class, I came to the stark realization that they are literally in a position to make life and death decisions. Radio in this part of the world is that important, that influential. The wrong words said the wrong way at the wrong time can, and have, led to violence, even death… As the students and I closed an emotional discussion about hate radio, I was encouraged when one student said that ‘it’s up to us’ to spread the word about the power of radio, and the awesome responsibility radio journalists here have to use their platform to promote peace and reconciliation instead of hate and violence.” (Peace Journalism Principles and Practices, 2016).

I am confident our Ugandan radio colleagues will do their jobs responsibly and ethically on Thursday and the days that follow. Here’s hoping that they can do so safely as well.

NOTES: For a comprehensive look at Ugandan elections, see this well-researched piece in the Guardian newspaper.

And for an examination of the election through the eyes of the country’s LGBT population, see this excellent New York Times column.

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