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Mwenda and his obsession with evidence

By Yusuf K. Serunkuma

Unfortunate journalism schools do not provide a yardstick with which truth is judged

Journalist Andrew Mwenda has a penchant for accusing colleagues of relying on rumours and idle gossip to comment on issues, or even write news reports.  Listening to him on radio or television, Mwenda is often dazzling with figures, statistics, historical facts and philosophical entry-points.  As he takes pride in this, he never misses an opportunity to scold others for lack of similar proficiency. Indeed, his column, “Recapturing Professional Journalism” on how some journalists indulged in gossip and rumour for guidance dripped with insults heralding a somewhat boisterous chastisement. Vintage.

Playing backup analyst, Mwenda has applauded Monitor’s Executive Editor Malcolm Gibson for publically denouncing his colleagues for doing “street” journalism.  Mwenda is strong that media analysis and reportage in Uganda is clouded in a sour cocktail of “rumour, gossip, biases, prejudice, emotions, ignorance, stupidity, shallow thinking, and lack of rigorous examination of issues.” He wonders whether some of his colleagues have ever opened a book at all, concluding, that many have risked their careers by failing to make “a distinction between themselves and a tomato vendor on the street and a pickpocket in the taxi park.” Great imagery, there!

Although the sanctimoniousness in Mwenda’s  vitriol is blinding, we need to focus our attention to the more critical issues of his argument, especially the need for evidence.  Throughout his critic, Mwenda foregrounds the core journalistic principles of being truthful and accurate, fair and balanced, and providing context for stories.  It is unfortunate media school does not provide us with a yardstick with which truth is judged, and neither does it tell us the limits of accuracy – very subjective terms. We might therefore ask, among many questions: Whose truth? Whose accuracy? Let me demonstrate.

In his recent book, `What Makes Africans Laugh?’ the founding editor of The New Vision newspaper recounts a  standoff he had with colleague; William Pike.  Tumusiime narrates: “Early in 1986, there had been a retreat of Permanent Secretaries and Ministers in Queen Elizabeth National Park. They had used very big cars.  In Pike’s love for commentary, and in disagreement with the use of these naughty machines, he wanted to make his critique the lead story. I protested arguing that as for the cost of the conference, this could be separated as comment, but not the lead story.”  It is intriguing that Tumusiime refers to Pike’s contention as “commentary,” therefore deserving to be treated as “opinion.”  Note, however, that both Tumusiime and Pike were dealing with items that actually happened during the meeting.  Indeed, they used big cars. Indeed, they discussed issues of national concern.  Both were “truthful” in this sense – and their difference actually lay in editorial or political direction.  Incidentally, media school does not talk about political direction, and it seems Mwenda and Gibson would rather sweep this under the carpet.

Equally interesting is Mwenda’s reductive method of argument – a narrowing of human interaction to evidence and figures, which are assumed to follow a linear progression. Phew! It might be unfair to say Mwenda wrongly uses the word evidence – for it is difficult to define.  Indeed, Mwenda has never tried to tell us what he means with the word.  However, we might assume that by evidence he means written down, counted (i.e., with stats), seen or involving the journalist’s participation. And Sources? But this is to assume that human interaction involves only (or all the time) writing, figures and seeing – and that these pieces of evidence are foolproof.  On the other hand, he seems to assume no history, no experience, assumption, possibility, etc. – core aspects in human interaction.  It also appears Mwenda assumes evidence explains itself.  If he didn’t, he would know that making sense of evidence is a political exercise – often euphemised as editorial direction.

I do not intend to argue that media should be reliant of gossip, rumour, biases, or emotions. On the contrary!  However, Mwenda should know that gossip is a helpful outlet for information often at the service of different centres of power. Stealthy regimes like that of the United States or people under repressive regimes have often found rumour helpful.  In fact, media elsewhere uses words such as “leaks,” “classified,” “whistleblowing,” in reference to news items that other centres of power prefer to tag as rumour or gossip.

I will end with Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, a book I highly recommend to our well-meaning journalists who incidentally are obsessed with evidence (whatever this means) and figures.  Responding to the apparently common-sense notion that knowledge is always produced in a neutral environment, Foucault noted that, “perhaps we should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist where the power relations are suspended, and knowledge can exist outside its [power’s] injunctions, its demands and its interests…We should admit rather that power produces knowledge… that power and knowledge directly imply one another…” How else then do we get to appreciate evidence produced outside the auspices of power? We might have to; in addition to critiquing the evidence, try looking elsewhere.

Yusuf K. Serunkuma is a PhD Graduate Fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR)

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