Reporting during a contentious election is a difficult job, and often one that shows the weaknesses of the international media. There’s almost no African who would be surprised to hear that the international media was biased when it comes to Africa. The Ugandan election and events leading up to the election involving opposition candidate Dr. Kizza Besigye showed the media’s weaknesses and inherent biases in full regalia.
And so, dear international media, may I humbly offer a few suggestions?
Facts matter. Over the weekend, Al Jazeera reported Dr. Besigye was “arrested.” Deutche Welle said he was “detained.” BBC said he was “held.” Yahoo more accurately reported “Besigye was driven to a police station, before then being taken home by police, with police spokesman Onyango stressing he was ‘not under any form of arrest.’” As they say, the devil is in the details, but reporting is all about getting the details right. There is a world of difference between being “arrested” and having the police “escort you home.” It was clearly a volatile situation, but isn’t the news media in the business of going into fast-paced or even tense situations and still getting the facts right? I wonder sometimes if the foreign media would really be so careless with words and facts if they were covering their own election. Do they think because they are far from home that no one will notice if they relax their standards a bit? Please note, foreign media, we notice.
No double standard. When international media report in Africa, they seem to suspend critical thinking. On the day of the elections, Dr. Besigye took journalists to show what he claimed to be voting irregularities, but he took them to a police security facility and in attempting to enter he assaulted a police officer. Dr. Besigye was arrested on charges of criminal trespass and assault, which is exactly what his actions would be called in any other democracy. In any other country being an opposition candidate doesn’t give you a free pass on committing crimes. Dr. Besigye has vowed to run a campaign of defiance. Provocation is his strategy. It’s what he believes an opposition candidate needs to do. So where is the double standard? When someone in Europe or America decides to lead a campaign of defiance against the government, everyone understands that it is still the job of the government to keep the peace. And if in defiance someone breaks the law, no one disputes that the police have an obligation to make an arrest. That is exactly what the Ugandan police did. They kept the peace and they arrested those who broke the law. And yet, the media reports those actions as the government plotting to destroy democracy. Isn’t maintaining security one of the elements of a democracy. Whether a leader is running or not, it is still the job of any leader’s government to keep the peace. And by the way, dear journalist, next time an opposition candidate in any country invites you to watch him break the law, think about your part in this. Would he be breaking the law if your cameras weren’t there? In your own country would you be so easily played.
Get out and see the countryside. Journalists parachute in when there is a disaster, election, or other major event. For many, they have never been to the country before, but within a short time the reporter is expected to write or report on air about the situation and sound like an expert. Here is a tip: not all Ugandans are alike. Just because you have talked to two people to fulfill your required two-source rule doesn’t mean you have gotten it right. Thirty-seven million people spread among 40 ethnicities have a lot of diversity of opinion. Just like in your country, wherever that country may be, people in the rural areas of Uganda often have very different opinions than those in the urban centers. Socio-economic factors create diversity as well. It’s well known that some of the candidates are more appealing to people in the city than rural areas or vice-versa. If you are going to start sentences with “Ugandans think…” or “Ugandans want…” make sure you have talked to a wide enough sample of Ugandans. If you were reporting on elections in the UK, would you report only on what Londoners say, or in the US, only what people in Washington and New York think? This is a national election. Treat it like one. And related to this, ever notice how many reports feature a quote for color from a local at the market or a taxi-driver? Do these journalists really think we don’t realize this is laziness? “Oh taxi driver,” says the journalist, “let’s stop by the market so I can get a few quotes and be done by noon. And by the way, what do you think about this issue?” And do these journalists realize they are asking opinions of people who are sophisticated enough to realize that a good quote, one that gives a journalist what he or she wants to hear, can often result in a good tip or purchase in the market?
Not all governments are bad. Not all oppositions are good. I thought part of democracy was that people were innocent until proven guilty, but for the news media covering Africa, there is an assumption that government is always wrong. Some governments are bad, but many are good. Some are corrupt. Many are not. It’s true that historically Africa has seen more than its fair share of leaders who thought only of enriching themselves, but most of the new leaders look towards development and encouraging investment. (A little history test for our journalist friends: does anyone remember who famously first said, “Give me trade, not aid”?) There is the assumption that all opposition candidates are kind, well-meaning people who must be protected from the evil government. Again, some oppositions are good and have better, fresher ideas. And let’s face it, some just want their turn to eat. Being an African leader doesn’t make you inherently corrupt, a human rights abuser, or heartless to your country and people. And being an opposition leader doesn’t make you a wonderful alternative with wholesome thoughts for your fellow man. Like any human being, almost everyone in government or opposition is made up of some good things and some bad. In your government and opposition leaders you understand they are nuanced individuals and as such you report the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you wouldn’t mind, please see that our leaders are the same, and not two-dimensional caricatures. And by the way, when getting man-on-the-street quotes, don’t just look for ones that mirror your preconceived biases on governments and oppositions. Try to get a well balanced sample.
We voted out term limits. Get over it. Ugandans voted in 2005 to amend the constitution to abolish term limits. Constitutions are living documents for a reason. They are supposed to be amended and changed to reflect the will of the people. We are a democracy, and we chose not to have term limits. Our leaders are elected, and if we, the people, decide we don’t like our leader, we’ll vote the person out. But having an artificial “expiration date” on a president is neither a requirement of democracy, nor what we wanted. That is our sovereign right. However, so many international media headlines and stories harp on the issue of term limits. Almost every story starts out – often even in the title – mentioning term limits and how long our President has served. (Note to Europeans, it still isn’t as long as the Queen of England has been on the throne.) Then they mention it again in the next paragraph. And often again in the next. Oh, and then there is a wrap-up at the end when they mention it again. The problem is these journalists are starting their reporting with a pretty hefty bias, and so they are lost from the beginning. Ugandans are not sheep, we are not stupid and we do not have a curious lack of will. For Ugandans, it’s not how long a president has served. It’s how well. That’s why we decided to amend our constitution. A good president should stay and continue as many times as he or she wants to run and as the people want to elect. A bad president will be voted out. Democracy is not one size fits all. It comes in many sizes, shapes and colors. Please respect mine and I will respect yours.