I was among the first journalists who rushed to St Mary’s College Aboke after the rebels abducted 139 girls. The school dormitories were still smoldering when I got there and Sister Rachele Fassera who had singlehandedly pursued the rebels had not returned. To get there, I had to travel along roads that had not been repaired for over 10 years. The bushes easily swallowed the saloon car in which I and my driver were travelling. At one point I passed a narrow bridge over a stream in which an army personnel courier (APC) had crashed and soldiers were pulling colleagues out. To this day, when I remember that journey, the hair stands on my head.
What was I thinking?! I could have been abducted or killed in crossfire if fighting erupted. The jalopy I was travelling in could have broken down. Yet I did not know how far I was from any village and I did not have any emergency water, food, or camping gear. I do not recall if my editor even knew what I was up to. I happened to be in the area on a completely different assignment when the abduction happened. Phone lines were in very limited use those days.
The journalists who the soldiers battered outside the UNHCR offices in Kampala may not have been in the rebel infested bushes of Lira district but they faced similar danger. Many were badly injured and maimed but they could as easily have been killed intentionally or otherwise.
Well-trained journalists know that they must assess how safe any assignment is before heading out. Newsrooms often have more experienced journalists whom the novices can consult. A popular training handbook offers journalists a set of queries they must answer before venturing out.
It says before leaving for an assignment, a journalist must ask these questions: Is the subject sufficiently newsworthy to justify the risks that I am taking? What are the potential risks and how well prepared am I to cope with them? Am I adequately insured for any eventualities? Do I know enough about the place where I am going? Have I mapped out an exit strategy? Have I worked out a procedure to stay in contact with my news desk and my family? Do I really want to go and am I physically and psychologically ready?
The trainers caution journalists to know their limitations: if an assignment appears difficult and you do not really want to go, speak to your manager or a family member. Listen to your instincts and do not force yourself to go.
As the UNHCR incident shows, even very limited news value events such as press conferences can easily take a very dangerous turn. Journalists should now know that there are forces determined to keep the news out of reach of the public. Killers and other wrongdoers want no witnesses.
Journalists must be taught that whereas they are theoretically dealers in a public good whose production must be supported and promoted by all right thinking citizens, the capture of the Fourth Estate by repressive politics and business, the lack of training, and decline in professionalism have created a hostile environment for journalists.
Individual journalists, their membership organisations such as the Uganda Journalists Association, media houses and media oversight bodies such as the Uganda Media Council need to develop an organised plan to protect journalists. So far the reaction has been knee-jerk and emotional. What is needed is a systemic and institutionalized reaction. And offering training in self-protection for journalists must be at the heart of it.