Dr. Peter Mwesige, ED – African Centre for Media Excellence. Internet Photo.

Seen to play a crucial role, media has been urged to exercise a healthy dose of skepticism in dealing with government of Uganda’s COVID-19 response, aimed at furthering public accountability on the current management of the pandemic in Uganda.   

The Executive Director (ED) of African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), Dr. Peter Mwesige, who is aware of media’s role in providing lifesaving information during emergencies and a forum for the public to debate policy debate policy response, underscored need for journalists, as public watchdogs, to hold government (and other powerful interests) to account to the people.

Mwesige said ACME has been analyzing media coverage of the pandemic since January 2020, arguing that although some Ugandan journalists have gone a great length to tell the COVID-19 story, sometimes risking their own lives, there still exists room for improvement in calling for more public accountability by questioning the “official narrative” that has dominated media’s coverage of COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda.

“We have been analysing media coverage of the pandemic since January last year, we shall be releasing a report in the coming weeks. Indeed, the media did not do a good job questioning official claims and investigating government policies and actions around the response. Journalists too did not do enough to question official narratives in their reporting. The President, ministers and other officials were given a free pass to frame the story,” Mwesige critiqued recently during a webinar to validate ACME’s research findings on media coverage of COVID-19.

Currently, Uganda is still under the second wave of the COVID-19, which with the decline in cases saw government lessen restrictions in July after 42 days of total lockdown. In its management of COVID-19 pandemic, government has come up with many interventions within the health sector, education sector and plans to resuscitate the economy, including a cash relief of UGX.100,000 to vulnerable Ugandans, in mitigating the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on the people.

However, such responses have been associated with fraud and misuse of public resources meant to manage the pandemic in Uganda, as parliament this week directed for a comprehensive review of government’s COVID-19 response due reports of corruption and mismanagement of public resources.

Mwesige opines that while it remains important to inform the public on what is happening, what government is doing in our name and what experts are saying; it’s equally important for the media to tell stories based on initiative;

“stories that go beyond official narratives and analyse trends, events, and developments. Stories that put depth to what is going on. Only then, can we talk about completeness and can the public claim they are informed. They can’t be informed if all they’re hearing is perspective of government officials and a few experts,” ACME’s executive director Dr. Peter Mwesigye intimated.

Yusuf Sserunkuma, a research fellow at Makerere University Institute for Social Research and columnist with the Observer newspaper reasons that the media in Uganda has never been so complacent and contented to report what official sources say, as he has seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda. He argues that although government has continued to come up with measures to curb the pandemic that are not well thought through, Uganda’s media has been happy to report without question!

“Media houses must set the news agenda for the country, they are a powerful constituency. They set the debate to influence government policy direction. However, they absconded on this duty, the media failed to shape discussion on how government should manage its response. The entire lockdown was a messed up affair; COVID funds were mismanaged! We needed to do much more than the official sources tell us.” Sserunkuma asserted.

Sserunkuma also holds that the problem is not arising from the lack in training of reporters or absence of resource, but rather, editorial handicap to sanction critical journalism within news rooms. Something he thinks editors should come out boldly about, for good journalism to thrive and for the media to push for public accountability.

However, the spokesperson of Ministry of Health (MoH), Emmanuel Ainebyona says that COVID-19 being a new phenomenon meant that news rooms had to rely heavily on scientific research and information from experts and government. He adds that some journalists, in covering the COVID-19 pandemic, have spread misinformation and stirred public anxiety due to lack of credible sources of information.

“There has been cases of some journalists picking and sharing rumours, without verifying the information or someone writing unbalanced stories without context, which in the long run results into public anxiety and alarm.” Ainebyona said.

For his part, Chris Kayonga the Content Manager Wizarts Foundation avers that public accountability is important in governments work, revealing that the foundation, a media NGO has been at the forefront of pushing for public accountability on government COVID-19 response in Uganda;

“We produced series of radio reports in major local languages, documenting how the pandemic unfolded over the past one year. These reports generated debate on government response, the impact of the pandemic on different sectors like education, the economy, the health sector and documented demands for accountability for public funds allocated for the pandemic response,” Kayonga said, adding that it is timely for the media to demand for government accountability.

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