In war, truth is the first causality and Uganda’s incursion into DR Congo (DRC) is no exception; given that until today, details of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) established between the two neighboring states to allow Ugandan troops cross into Eastern DRC in pursuit of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) is yet to be made public by both governments, undermining need for timely, credible and transparent information to the public during situations of conflict.
Geopolitical analysts have urged media consumers to take initial reports coming from the DRC; mainly from centralized authorities like the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF) and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC): with a pinch of salt, arguing that being parties to ongoing operation launched against the ADF on 30th November 2021 following explosions in Kampala, the fighting forces may seek to drive war propaganda rather than avail credible information to the public.
For Philip Kasaija Apuuli, an Ass. Professor of International Relations at Makerere University and keen observer of the regional security developments within the African continent, trouble arises where the public is not privy to the bilateral arrangement leading Uganda into Eastern DRC, leaving government as the only undisputed source of a monolithic narrative, without any third party accounts, hence undermining truth and objectivity (which are key news values) of the information coming from the frontlines in DR Congo and fed to the public through the media;
“Media coverage of Congo is hardly there because what we are getting is what government is telling us. Of course that causes concern; the information we are getting is controlled information. But knowing governments in this region, on how they control truth, it requires that someone independent goes on the ground to verify these claims. That is what happens world over, people who report on these kinds of conflict are taken to the frontline and shown around so that they get an independent perspective. But either you guys are inept or just lazy, and if they (UPDF) have stopped you, you also tell us,” Kasaija demanded.
Kasaija holds that in the absence of an initiative from the media as an independent observer to tell the actual story from DR Congo, information from government cannot be relied upon.
However, Tabu Butagira, Managing Editor at Nation Media Group with experience covering regional security issues, says the media faces big constraints covering conflict situations, which in the end affects their reporting; “There are a lot of unknowns because we have not had physical presence of Journalists to take account of what transpired: take record, get witnesses and survivor’s accounts. Much of the reporting depends on what the army and political leadership is saying with limited independent corroboration of the issues,” he said.
“That really, is the constraint. And of course, it is explainable that journalists cannot go into a war theatre on their own, you could become collateral damage. So it’s important that even journalists go there if it’s safe for them to go and when the people in charge of the operation allow you. And if you’re a News Manager, you also don’t want to deploy your journalist into a conflict area when there’s no guarantee of their safety because that would be reckless and irresponsible,” Butagira argued.
Since conducting the first airstrikes on 30th November 2021, the UPDF has lost two Ugandan soldiers in DR Congo. We interviewed Brig. Flavia Byekwaso before handing over office as army spokesperson and she confirmed that the two died of “personal mistakes”. She said the joint forces are making inroads to gain control of Eastern DRC, where they have now conquered Cambi Ayuwa; the ADF main headquarters and Cambi Madina; their religious headquarters, arguing that by gaining control of these strategic bases, the UPDF has successfully disrupted ADF activities and supplies.
However, other than flashing out the rebel groups from their bases, Byekwaso declined to divulge further operational details including human loss and causalities of the assault on the ADF and or possibly locals in the area. Until this point in time, it’s also not know when Uganda’s armed forces intends to leave Congo, now that the UPDF is engaged in roads construction in a foreign land to open-up parts of Eastern DRC.
Kasaija says one way the public could get details of the bilateral agreement entered between governments of Uganda and DR Congo, in spirits of public accountability and access to information, is to evoke section 40 of the UPDF ACT of 2005 seeking an explanation from the Defense Minister under what arrangement Ugandan troops went to DR Congo. Without this level of transparency from government, Ugandans have largely been kept in the dark with government keeping cards to its chest on what information they actually share, undermining media’s ability to hold them to account.
“In a typical war situation, not all of the truth is known at the time things happen, sometimes it’s known much later when audits are done. So, the information we have as of now is only credible in terms of who is giving the information, rather than because it has been independently corroborated. Since the start of operation Shujaa, we have seen a number of photographs, video clips, statements from the military, countries and political pronouncements. The question is, which of it is true and which of it is false?”Butagira queries!
Verification is the essence of Journalism and Butagira argues although ways currently exist to verify some of the information available, like doing background checks on images, this he argued, is not something common to majority of the news consumers.
“The real danger is that individual capabilities to verify this information differs and also for many media houses, the ability to corroborate information also varies. And so, there is a real risk of slippage of unqualified, wrong, inaccurate or misinformation in circumstances of war because propaganda is part of war. But I think in terms of telling the story, it’s important therefore for journalists or any media house to qualify that this reporting is based on accounts offered by government and we have not independently verified this because of the circumstances,” Butagira cautioned.
Framing, a key news component, relates to how the media slants news events in favor-of or against certain actors or narratives and Kasaija intimated that this has shaped how the public has come to perceive the Congo story, especially with limited room for the media to interrogate official narratives from government:
“Uganda’s incursion into DRC is couched in terms of fighting terrorism. We know that in the past Islamic state and ADF have carried out terrorist activities both here and in the neighboring countries. So, the framing is perfect for the government because then, you can concentrate the minds of the people and the international community to say look here, we are fighting terrorism. But beyond that, is there a possibility that we are in the DRC to do other things?” Kasaija questions, arguing that chances also exist that the UPDF could be pursuing other interests rather than the national interest presented by the media.
Indeed, the importance of verification and or independent journalism from undue influences from the state cannot be overemphasized; the chilling effect of independent reporting by Journalists Andrew Mwenda and Charles Onyango-Obbo exposed UPDF transgressions in DR Congo between 1997 – 2003, consequently leading to scrapping of section 50 of the penal code that criminalized publication of false news, a major milestone towards advancement of media freedoms in Uganda, at least in paper.