20 February 2013

Uganda: Repositioning Media


In recent decades, conflict sensitive journalism has emerged in the media world as an innovative journalistic approach that seeks to manage and resolve conflict by way of a win-win.

It proposes to do this through popular and all-inclusive participation of the voices of those who do not traditionally make it into the news. Conflict sensitive journalism seeks to amplify such marginalised voices and it has proved successful in situations of continuous and unresolved conflict. This works out at both the grass roots and higher levels in society right up to the national platform.

In contrast, the traditional journalistic approach is to tell the story from the point of view of public personalities who, by reason of their public profile, sustain interest in and lend credibility to that story. In other words, the scope of the traditional approach is personality-based, and as such, may in some quarters, be criticised as narrow and elitist. As is evident in any polarised political climate, the traditional journalistic approach can easily become a driver of different ideological interests. Further, the experienced challenges of actual or perceived misrepresentation of the personal views of the influential is a sobering reminder to Ugandan journalists and Ugandan media houses about the potential disadvantages of the traditional approach to reporting.

Rather than limit the scope of the story to public personalities and their opinions, conflict sensitive journalism seeks to unravel and understand the web of issues behind the story. The silent and passive recipients of the story according to the traditional approach become active and engaged stakeholders in conflict sensitive journalism. Further, conflict sensitive journalism broadens the scope of the story from limiting itself to the opinions of those who traditionally make the news to actively engaging the views and concerns of those who are the traditional recipients of news.

In order to discover the breadth and significance of the story, conflict sensitive journalism maps out the various stakeholders involved, right down to the grass roots, and seeks to articulate the specific concerns and interests of each stakeholder. Each stakeholder in the story is considered and respected as an autonomous voice with specific issues of interest to articulate, rather than as a passive backdrop to the news made by the views and opinions of public personalities. Conflict sensitive journalism seeks to promote the democratic public space through participation and inclusion of those who would otherwise frequently be voiceless.

Like all good professional journalism, conflict sensitive journalism demands of the practicing journalist a solid and ongoing investment in professional best practice, time and people management. Media houses that embrace conflict sensitive journalism need, as a matter of strategic necessity, to invest in editing and recording equipment. This includes hardware and software solutions.

Conflict sensitive journalism focuses on issues and, as such, requires objectivity and discipline on the part of the practicing journalist. Issues, unlike personalities, are by their very nature neutral and people-centred. Therefore, any engagement with issues demands a spirit of open-mindedness and non-partisan reporting.

On the Ugandan media scope, conflict sensitive journalism has been pioneered by the Uganda Media Development Foundation (UMDF. To date, UMDF has conducted a number of trainings on conflict sensitive journalism approaches to build and sustain professional capacity, mainly among mid-career broadcast media staff. As a programmatic intervention, conflict sensitive journalism has been introduced in eight regional radio stations across Uganda. These are Radio Pacis and Rainbow Radio in the West Nile, Radio Wa and Luo FM for Northern Uganda, Step FM and Kyoga Veritas radio in Eastern Uganda, and Voice of Tooro and Guide FM in Kasese for the Western region. These radio stations serve as benchmark models of excellence in conflict sensitive reporting.

Conflict sensitive journalism is a relatively young approach to journalistic reporting and is yet to be mainstreamed as best practice in media houses. However, it presents an exciting opportunity for journalists and media houses to develop and produce stories and programmes in fresh and adventurous ways. By focusing on issues rather than on public personalities, this approach to journalistic reporting seeks to open up the public space by involving and empowering the citizens in the articulation of issues. These can include stories on land disputes and the ways in which they affect the livelihood of the ordinary families. Rather than dwell on the drama of the land dispute as a reported event, conflict sensitive reporting seeks to focus on the processes that build up the story and then to offer a platform of common ground for solutions to be proposed by the stakeholders. This development is clearly in line with the Government's own democratisation drive to involve Ugandans in solving their own problems.

By tapping into the silent marginalised voices, conflict sensitive journalism offers media houses a new listenership/ readership. This enhances the popular ratings of the concerned media houses and its credentials as a key public stakeholder in governance. It is in the interest of the private sector as well as Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to associate with credible, issues-focused and audience-rich media houses. This is a business prospect that media managers need to study carefully in order to translate it into fresh commercial opportunities for marketing and advertising. In Uganda's increasingly competitive media environment, where competition revolves around similar business strategies, innovativeness in programming and other media products is a critical business strategy not only in maintaining the market niche, but also in expanding into new and uncharted business ventures.

Conflict sensitive journalism enhances the democratic credentials of the Ugandan journalist and media house in promoting the popular voice in governance. Significantly for media houses, it provides a sustainable commercial option for boosting their marketing and sales figures.

The writer is the National Coordinator, UMDF

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