By Matthew Stein
War discretion debate in the newsroom made easier by despondent public
Early last week numerous newsrooms around the country received a conspicuous email from an individual who referred to himself only as Diablo (devil) Man. The email, which was entitled, What the Ugandan government is hiding from the public, included numerous photos from an alleged battle that took place between the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF) and Al-Shabaab militants in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
Look at these photos of dead Ugandan soldiers who say they are there to make peace, reads the email. how your population that their government is sending young soldiers to Somalia to exchange their blood for dirty American money.
The photo attachments, which were published on the Somali-based radio al-furqaan website, depicts a dead UPDF soldier lying in the midst of a sandy road surrounded by weapons, ammunition, clothing and even packages of bread in their distinct red Ugandan packaging. In one photo, a Somali man is being interviewed beside the soldiers limp body as armed men with scarves obstructing their faces look on. In another photo, numerous identity cards belonging to UPDF soldiers are made visible for the camera.
When The Independent received these photographs numerous questions were raised: does the public interest in publishing these images override the potential harm they could cause? Who is the source of these photos? Is this a propaganda attempt by the Al-Shabaab? Did the photos even depict reality or were they staged?
To gain perspective on these challenging questions, The Independent consulted some of the countrys leading news editors. At the New Vision we encountered a defiant John Kakande, who after one look at the photos boldly stated that they would never run in the government-owned publication. New Vision editorial policy dictated that the paper does not publish dead bodies. Only in extreme circumstances when the photo was needed to expose either the brutality of an event, as in the case of the 7/11 bombings or to prove that a top LRA commander had been killed, would an exception be made.
In this case we are talking about a dead UPDF soldier, says Kakande, alarmed at the prospect. If people saw this photo the war would be visible and many would appreciate the sacrifices being made.
Isnt that the point? he is asked.
The media and New Vision has a responsibility to inform the public but inform with due regard to the social context, he says. The media operates in a certain environment and mission and we must be sensitive to the broad concerns of society.
Across town, Alex Atuhaire, news editor at The Monitor, initially greets the photos with the same level of caution. Its an important story, he admits, but there are other factors to consider. I dont want to give an outlaw group the platform to advance their agenda, he says. The Monitor, he adds, also has a strict editorial policy when it comes to publishing the dead.
But after reviewing the photos several more times, indignation begins to grow in Atuhaire. Issues of bad taste and offending relatives of the deceased are replaced by the bigger questions of the Somali mission. â€œMaybe itâ€™s time to do something that sparks debate,â€ says Atuhaire. â€œWhether we are achieving anything positive, whether our soldiers have the right mandate to protect themselves and whether they should return or continue.â€
For Ben Byarabaha, news editor at the Red Pepper, the photos became publishable once he received confirmation from AMISOM spokesperson Major Barigye Bahuko that a military engagement had taken place in the area where the photos had been taken. Not only does Red Pepper operate in an environment with far fewer scruples and rules of verification then the Monitor or Vision, but for Byarabaha, the photos represented an opportunity to fight back at the governmentâ€™s misguided decision to involve Uganda in a war, he says, is being fought on the United Statesâ€™ behalf. â€œYou have a government that doesnâ€™t want to come clean,â€ he says. â€œThese photos raise sentiments and emotions and as a newspaper thatâ€™s what we need to do.â€
At a Makerere University mass communication class, the journalists and editors of tomorrow are equally divided on the issue. Most students agree that images would prove more powerful and convincing than words and would likely provoke more questions over the warâ€™s worth. However, others believe that the visuals would be too disturbing for the associated families to handle and after all, â€œwhen there is war, there is death.â€
Each student is eager to have their voice heard, but one young man in the front raises an invaluable point: â€œUPDF represents not just the government but the entire public,â€ he says. â€œThe owners of the UPDF should know whatâ€™s going on with their own property.â€
But, how much do Ugandans actually care about their countrymen fighting in Somalia? How much are they involved in their victories or defeats? When images and video spread of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in what became known as the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, the reverberations on the American psyche lasted for a decade. Not only did then President Clinton immediately withdraw American troops from Somalia, but the event and its impact, highly limited American military engagements abroad until the Iraq War was launched in March 2003.
â€œThe “Mogadishu effect” was played out in Haiti, but even more tragically in Bosnia,â€ explained American Senator and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Richard Lugar years later during an interview with PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). â€œThe Mogadishu incident dramatically indicated that Americans were not tolerant of losing American lives, and grossly intolerant if it appeared that American leadership had no idea of what we were doing, and why they were lost and what sort of control we had. So one thing that came quickly from Mogadishu was to say if ever again we are involved with American troops, America will be in command.â€
In Uganda, however, argues Peter Mwesige, former executive editor of The Monitor and current executive director for the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), the reaction would be highly muted. â€œThese things work in societies where leaders are sensitive to public opinion,â€ he notes. â€œHere you have leaders who are contemptuous of public opinion. It means nothing to them.
Moreover, reaction from the public, Mwesige says, would also be largely passive. â€œSenseless violence went on in Congo and there were never any serious demonstrations,â€ he says. â€œUgandans are despondent. They leave these things to leadership and donâ€™t seem to care.
Both Kakande and Atuhaire concur with this position: Most people think of Somalia as, â€˜weâ€™ve got soldiers there.â€™ It begins and ends there,â€ says Kakande.
People feel disengaged from the military,â€ says Atuhaire. Its one of those subjects they dont understand well. They dont think it has a big impact on their life.
And perhaps until the public does take a bigger interest in the military and their activities abroad, coverage of the war will continue to be sparse and provocative images will continue to be easily kept from public consumption and consequent debate.
Everyday more deaths are reported in Somalia’s ever increasing battlefield and despite commitments from other African countries, Uganda forces and to a smaller extent their Burundian counterparts, are left to shoulder this burden on their own.
On Monday, Peoples Progressive Party presidential candidate, Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, said UPDFs presence in Somalia was done without proper consultation with Parliament. The issue of Somalia is not for Uganda and Burundi alone and I pledge that through my Parliament, I will persuade other African states to take responsibility.
Meanwhile, President Museveni is eager to send an additional 20,000 UPDF to Somalia; Forum Democratic Changes Kizza Besigye has in the past argued for a total withdrawal; and Uganda Peoples Congress Olara Otunnu has warned that withdrawal would be suicidal.
However, there hasnt been any serious discussion on what the UPDF has accomplished thus far, nor has any withdrawal plan been advanced to eventually end their deployment by any party.
On Monday violence struck the Somali capital yet again resulting in the death of 15 individuals including possible AMISOM troops. Details are still emerging, but its unlikely that the event and the subdued manner in which it is bound to be covered in the media, will leave the country demanding more information.