By Yusuf K. Serunkuma
The Independent’s two interviews show the tragedy of being under a dysfunction for too long
At the height of the 2011 war in Libya, one Aljazeera journalist remarked that in times of evil, it was right for journalism to side with the forces of good. Perhaps this is the decision that The Independent (IPL) has taken in the Kampala city leadership drama: Side with the hero; ridicule the villain. For anyone reading between the lines, it is clear Jennifer Musisi’s (JN) interview with IPL’s Joseph Were and Haggai Matsiko underscores our desperation for a better city – and media has sided with the forces perceived able to deliver goodness. Sadly, however, in this yearning, journalism has dispensed with its core responsibility – being the eyes and ears of the public. Perhaps this is the tragedy of being under a dysfunction for too long – a little goodness numbs our critical sensibilities!
Even for her extremist critics, it is difficult to deny that Kampala has changed. Whether one calls it “development”, “innovation” or “maintenance” – terms that are debated in these two interviews – that is another issue. The record: We have functional medical centres in the city; a couple more roads are being improved; a new market was opened recently and, aesthetically, the city looks better.
Throughout the interview, JN is pleased she is getting the job done. Our interviewers are equally convinced, deeply awestruck that things are happening, “we did not know KCCA could have dental facilities and all!” they exclaim, going on to ask for her philosophy of work. “Many people would like to take decision like you that but they cannot…Do you have a philosophy under which you rotate your management style?” they ask, at different times. Sympathetic to the professed apolitical JN, the journos even pity her for “chasing vendors, chasing General Sejjusa,” whom they describe as “dangerous people!” We may never know the yardstick with which these journalists assessed the dangerousness of these people!
The interview comes off as a feature on a celebrity personality. The journalists do not only ask personal cheeky questions like “what do you miss most [for having become a celebrity ED],” they also foreground the ED’s demeanour in the course of the interview. There is some poetry to its method, typical of fashion magazines: “She is totally concentrated as she speaks, occasionally twirling her hands to reveal neatly manicured nails, or shifting to subconsciously [perhaps, reflexively] to ensure that each hair on her nice coiffure is in place – mostly combed flat with a small mop sitting gaily on her prominent forehead.” Certainly, there should be no problem in covering the human side of the claimed tough-talking ED. However, in line with the goings-on in Kampala, the endless physical and court battles between the ED and the Lord Mayor; government’s runs-in with Kampala’s wretched; Museveni’s dramatic call for Lukwago’s apology, and his unwavering support the ED, why would The Independent’s first interview with the Executive Director of Kampala take a human-interest hue, a feature of sorts? By the way, this is her first media interview in the middle of a long political storm in the city’s leadership.
In December 2013, IPL interviewed troubled Kampala Mayor Erias Lukwago (EL) – the puncher on the other side. Journalist Andrew Mwenda (AM) did the asking. The questions were tough, but even much tougher were Lukwago’s responses. EL accused JN of among other things, incompetence, but more disturbing, missing monies. Let’s recap, only on the most spectacular.
AM asks: Did they find the ED incompetent?
EL: “They (report) said that Shs58 billion Jenifer found on the frozen accounts of the defunct KCC cannot be explained and that has been the crux of the matter…if you ask anybody who attended that meeting Jenifer fainted and I felt sympathetic because on one account in DFCU Kawempe she had withdrawn Shs500 million which is not normal.”
AM: How much does it cost KCCA to do 1Km of the roads?
EL: That is another problem, and you can go and ask Hon. Odonga Otto. The government assurance committee discovered that Jennifer is costing each Km at Shs3 billion. The new Kabale-Katuna road, which is a highway, is roughly Shs1.8 billon per Km with side cutting through the rocks and hills. But you who is not even creating a new road; you spend Shs3 billion.
And so on.
Because this interview happened at the height of the mayor’s impeachment, it was expected that in the interest of journalistic balance, IPL would seek one with the ED, immediately. We can assume her schedule scheduled IPL for some time in late April 2014. Interestingly however, in addition to IPL calling EL “an acerbic-tongued politician and lawyer,” not at any one time do our journalists bring out questions of accountability, questions that are at the centre of EL’s run-ins with JN. Sadly, even when JN opens a window, IPL does not pick the queue. Take for example, JN noted, they had “built markets in Wandegeya; we are starting one in Busega. We have bought land in Bukoto, Kitintale and Ggaba to build new markets,” one would expect the journalists to follow this with EL’s accusation, that is, the city authority borrowed US$ 13.5 million to support markets, and that “by the time we launched Wandegeya, we were supposed to launch six of that standard.” Why was only one opened? This question does not come!
JN opens another window, of failing to work with EL, describing him as one with “diversionary thinking.” You would expect that the journalist would have retrieved EL’s emotional plea: “I really tried, if you care to find out the facts, how many times I would visit her office, how many times I would seek to talk to her informally, how many times I wanted everybody to intervene and see how we address the issue; all in vain…” What is even sadder is that what Lukwago explains as taking JN “to court for interpretation of the Act because she was saying that we are not entitled to asking for accountability and the policymaking,” the journalist seemed to agree with JN that this was undue “distraction,” sorrowing with her for intimating resignation in 2012.
Of course, IPL has justification for choosing to take this angle – which they may never explain to their readers. What is clear, however, is that the thematic direction, admiration for JN, and flippancy with which IPL directed the interview lacked any historical and contextual depth. If EL’s claim was that issues of accountability formed the crux of their epic clashes, then accountability would have been a core issue for this interview.