KAMPALA, UGANDA Time for class. Time for thinking. Time for cutting through the nonsense.
We need this, this thinking, while mourning the loss of Harriet Atugonza and Alex Kisakye: two souls taken early and tragically and with the horrible spectre of Ugandan tabloid journalism run amok.
Tabloid journalism. Are you versed with it? Here are three lessons.
Lesson 1 is that a certain type of tabloid newspaper is not interested in journalism. These publications appear to walk and talk like other newspapers, but they are different animals. In Uganda, as you know, they carry vegetable names like pepper and onion.
Some of the world’s craziest tabloids may, with a straight face, scream bizarre headlines like “Baby born with four heads” or “Noah’s Ark was a UFO.” or “Scientists confirm moon is made of cheese.” But it’s understood it’s all for a laugh. Noah, really, doesn’t care.
Uganda’s vegetable newspapers are in another category, more akin to The National Enquirer, a huge global seller which makes money by reporting celebrity gossip of the rich and famous. In these tabloids, stories might start with some truth but then stretch the facts to ridiculous claims.
And, unlike in a story on Noah being an alien, live people often get hurt. This is why these tabloids have at times been ordered by courts to pay millions of dollars in damages.
So Lesson 2 is that in much of the world even sensational tabloids face consequences if guilty of libel, that is maligning someone’s character in print.
Which brings us to Harriet and Alex and the brain-dead vegetable journalism that followed their recent deaths at a UCU hostel.
It’s good and credible to report information that an explosion in Alex’s hostel killed these two. It’s even fair to suggest a broken rela- tionship was likely not just a, but the contributing factor, an important detail to explore the fuller truth of what happened.
(And in this, there is sober reflec- tion. Even now a team of UCU’s best contributors are preparing to write a new, ongoing Standard column on the health, social and spiritual aspects of dating and relationships.)
What is not good and credible, what is more like a report of the moon being made of cheese, is what Uganda’s best known red vegetable paper screamed out, that “Burnt UCU HIV gal infected 10 boys” and how Harriet was “a despicable woman” and how AIDS is now ram- pant at UCU and yada-yada, what-what: all with horrific photo of Harriet’s remains.
In this so-called exclusive report that you’ve likely seen as much as I have, neither a reporter nor a single source was even properly identified. This is not shoddy journalism. It’s not journalism at all.
So our community has been left shell-shocked not just once, but twice, mourning not just the double loss of life but also the loss of honour and dignity and common decency.
Harriet deserves better. Alex deserves better. Their families and friends deserve better. This university deserve better. In fact, Uganda deserves better.
Which leads us to Lesson 3. Press accountability is terribly undeveloped in Uganda. This is why vegetable papers can prowl and destroy under the guise of journalism and with impunity.
But this will not always be the case. The day is coming when enough Ugandans who care for truth and development – things Christians should be rather concerned about – will say it’s all enough. They’ll use their God-given voices for the sake of their God-given country and bring the change that’s needed.
You might even be one of them. Think about that. While we continue to mourn.