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Uganda: Can the media force a country to mourn?

Can the media force a country to mourn? This it the main question that the Ugandan journalist and blogger, Rosebell Kagumire, raised in a lively conversation that took place on her blog and Facebook page following local media coverage of the death of Uganda's Vice President Prof. Gilbert Bukenya’s son.

In this post we will see how a blog and Facebook page were used to start a conversation about the role of national media in Uganda.

The discussion thread from her Facebook page are posted in her blog in a post titled, “Coverage of VP Bukenya’s son’s death: Can you force a country to mourn?”. The post begins:

For the last 20 or so hours I have been involved in a discussion on my facebook page. it was my reaction to the newspaper coverage of Vice President’s son’s death. First of all I do not in any way intend to say that there shouldn’t have been coverage, my focus and the focus of the debate is on the presentation of the news and the vocabulary used to sort of show like this was a national mourning instead of the media utilising a chance to highlight causes of road carnages that take thousands of lives in Uganda. And the recipient of my rant -if you want to call it that-was Daily Monitor for obvious reasons- ownership and a better level of editorial independence.

She continues:

If you follow the discussion you will realise that the newspaper reinforced hat the portrayal of Prof. Gilbert Bukenya’s loss as national in their first report about the death of former army commander Maj.Gen. James Kazini.

Below is the text from the Kazini story.

“The girlfriend has been arrested and taken for questioning at Kampala Central Police Station. Mourners, among them military officers and relatives, trickled in to the Namuwongo residence as the shocking news spreads.
The country was preparing for the burial later Tuesday of vice President, Prof. Gilbert Bukenya’s son, Bryan, who died at the weekend after suffering serious head injuries in a motor crash.”

Here is part of the discussion thread copied from her Facebook page and posted on her blog:

Rosebell Kagumire:

everyday many ugandans die in an accident we have lost MPs and leader opposition in parliament was just out of hospital instead of the damn editors and newmen using these times to bring out the real cause of these accidents and highlightin the needed changes they r busy writting without shame how a vp lost an heir. please dont mean to be mean but this doesnt need to be a leading story for both dailies.

21 hours ago · Delete

Bbc Karol Mama-Lover:

I noticed too but assumed they did not have news.

20 hours ago · Delete

Rosebell Kagumire:

this part of a Daily Monitor story about Kazin’s death made me mutter Jesus christ son of God with a sign of cross at 1 am: “The girlfriend has been arrested and taken for questioning at Kampala Central Police Station… The country was preparing for the burial later Tuesday of vice President, Prof. Gilbert Bukenya’s son, Bryan, who died at the weekend after suffering serious head injuries in a motor crash.”

Really the country was preparin really really?????????????????

19 hours ago · Delete

Doreen Ahumuza:

Question is ” Who is the country here????”

19 hours ago · Delete

Henry Mukasa:

Rosebell, get real… Bukenya is VP and as such anything that affects his life like bereavement, attack on him by mafia… could by extension affect the performance of his duties and hence national news! Did you know that Sebbanga made front news for Bukedde? The rationale is that this boy who was saved from starvation has not survived death, afterall. Seems Costa Rica beaches have put you in confort zone yet I know you as an aggressive person…

19 hours ago · Delete

Rosebell Kagumire:

henry i must sya am disappointed that u can defend a heardline like this. bukenya loses heir. realllly is this the journalism we studied. if the mafia as we know he imagines it when it best suits him and only to take back him words was 4 rio then we wd have reason to make a death of a son of vp a national story. so u think the country is preparing. hmmmm i am soooooo amazed.

19 hours ago · Delete

Daniel Kalinaki:

Rosie, what would you have led with if you were the editor?

19 hours ago · Delete

Rosebell Kagumire:

Daniel, there are mllion stories ugandans are experiencing. i am wondering if bukenya losin an heir is of national importance. it wd be if we are in mornachy and he’s in line to rule us. i know there r such days as bad days in the newsroom but to try to make a nation believe that bukenya’s loss is national as if no other ugandan is dying -right now… Read more probably in road accidents doesn’t seem reasonable to me. and to add that line in 2day’s story about the death of kazini as if to equate both deaths (in terms of impact on the nation) is even worse. his loss is not heavier than the ones we see everyday on ugandan roads may be we shd make everyday headlines for every ugandan life lost in an accident. unless u want to tell me the cause of death wasnt an accident which i hven’t seen in the report.

18 hours ago · Delete

Gaaki Kigambo:

Daniel, part of the larger (and worrying) issues the DM and NV headlines reveal is what someone on here has captured so well, and that is newspapers are looking for what’s new (Kibyaki), and now what’s the news.

And for as long as we run after our so-called news makers I don’t see how we’re going to avoid such bland headlines, or news. Because what that essentially means is that we must pick whatever they drop and sometimes it can be really something ‘juicy’ and at most times it’s likely going to be something stale.

So in asking what DM could have led with, I think the answer is not directly in the alternative stories the paper carried behind Bukenya mourning a dead heir. It is much more in the stories that perhaps never got covered because the paper was preoccupied with running after its usual news makers, or savers of the day if you will. … Read more

The challenge is to go back and figure what really are the issues that Ugandans care about or you can interest them in and then get on those and ‘force’ our news makers to explain themselves on those issues.

Of course, there will always be occasional events breaking that need to be covered, but if the newspapers’ primary focus is on those events, we’re not setting the agenda (as we like to puff ourselves) and nobody really cares about us. We’ll always be running after our ‘news makers’ and they’ll dictate, directly or otherwise, what gets into the paper.

18 hours ago · Delete

Gloria Sebikari:

Rosebell, remember our first news writing class (Bernard Tabaire sh’d be proud of me!) where one of the characteristics of news is prominence and human interest??? Well the VP is no. 2 in the country so almost anything about and affecting him is news!!!! Disagreeable but true. Prominent people are news in themselves.

12 hours ago · Delete

Rosebell Kagumire:

@Daniel & Glo, the main point of this argument is not that you cannot cover the vp’s son’s death but no u have to and i read the news on sunday on your website. but to make this the story worthy of a headline really i dont see how? did his the country know this youngman (may his soul rest in peac)? i still believe we can do better than headline … Read morethe death of the heir. and beyond this being a headline the way the story is written to try to creat a sort of national loss (dont get me wrong every death causes a loss to uganda) moment that doesnt exist is not acceptable. and putting prominently the heir part one would think we are saudi arabi and the young man was in line for power. we can do and we (ugandan journalists) are indeed better than this.

12 hours ago · Delete

Joe Powell:

This doesn’t necessarily make it right but don’t you think it would be on the front page on every newspaper in America if something were to happen to Joe Biden’s son?

7 hours ago · Delete

Gaaki Kigambo:

Joe, the story about Bukenya’s son dying can make the headlines. Personally I have no problem with that. It has shock effect enough to knock off any other story. But a follow-up lead that Bukenya is mourning his heir is totally off. That assumes an importance about the son that actually doesn’t exist, or better still was used up in the first headline story.

If the follow up was about what type of person Bukenya’s son was, what were his aspirations in relation to his father’s claims, what was he (academically) qualified in, what percentage of other people his age have died in similar circumstances etc, basically stuff that advance the story, then maybe a story about him would have qualified to lead again. But as it is, the story is static, its obvious (what would you expect a man to say of his first born?), its weak, and it demonstrates what you get when u tag at the coattails of those you’ve ringed off as news makers.

And that’s why I feel its unfair for one to make insinuations that some of us who advance these contrary views to such choice of stories that make headlines are doing so because of the comforts academe affords us. Those kinds of insinuations assume we haven’t been (or aren’t) journalists in our lives and we don’t know how the real world of reporting and putting good stories actually is. … Read more

Can we then also make the same assumptions and insinuations about the academe comforts that are currently being made here about someone who a few years ago penned a brilliant series about how Ugandan journalism was bastardised?

I think its important we resist the temptation to inject such insinuations/assumptions into otherwise worthy debates and discussions like this one because we risk being exactly like the people whose feet we like to hold to the fire.

5 hours ago · Delete

Below are comments on her blog:

Nevender:

I got lost during the debate but I think we should mourn for the losses. As long as death occurs, sorrow should be there. And then we should make sense of the sorrow and of the loss.

Rosebell:

Well Nevender, the debate is on the media not the loss in itself. like you say as long as there’s death there will be sorrow but who’s sorrow is it and why shd the media tell you whom or claim you’re mourning people you aren’t. As you must have noted in the posts we are not saying this is not a story to report about but i am questioning the place it’s given trying to portray the tragedy for Bukenya’s family as a national tragedy.

orton kiishweko:

Rosebell,the same way you cover public figures even in circumstances that are ’so private’ making them the laughing stock of everyone,is the same level of coverage and honour you should accord their souls when they are departed in such inhumane circumstances…..
To give Bukenya Bryan a worthhile send off,was worth it in every respect just as it was worth it for Monitor or Vision or Observer to lead with stories about circumstances under which he died and the last respects(i will call them’colour stories’,unfortunately.
For us,who had accurate and first hand information about the young man,we knew that had his life not been taken so early,he was gradually gaining the capacity that would have brought about change in every way(stop road carnage,political changes that would have affected millions in a way,So,in that sense,he is a single soul but his death,as a young person with great -great potential,represents the death of thousands Ugandans who have no voice or platform…..So, his death is a national issue in that respect…Orton Kiishweko,Dar es salaam

Rita:

When Uganda has BIG problems like lack of malaria medicine in hosptitals (maybe the situation has changed now, i don’t know), that is bad. How much publicity do these things that are so essential get?

But everyday Uganda is becoming westernised, it is about what sells the papers not what is important or essential. The hope keeps fading away everyday and i do not see it changing. We are trapped in a cycle which is blinding. Museveni will investigate this death, it will get more headlines that take away from more important issues that could be fed to the public. It is going to become a justice Sebutinde issue, how corruption was investigated and culprits uncovered, but nothing was actually done about it. In this case, this kind of publicity is not necessary, but it sells the papers and make museveni look ‘active and caring’ i guess.

Rosebell Kagumire is the winner of 2009 Waxal Blogging Award for African Journalists for Best Journalist Blog (Anglophone).

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