Neutrality difficult to achieve in tough terrain, journalists, media scholars say

KAMPALA – Neutrality for journalists operating in a politically-charged environment is a tough assignment to achieve, media scholars and senior practitioners have said.

Speaking at the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, which ran live across our social media channels and permanently available on our Facebook and Twitter, journalists and scholars also cited state and commercial interferences affecting neutrality.

Mr Andrew Mujuni Mwenda, a Ugandan print and radio journalist and the founder of The Independent, a current affairs newsmagazine said journalists are human beings with emotions and patriotic sentiments making neutrality in their reporting a difficult task to achieve.

Delivering a keynote address at the European Union-supported event held in Kampala on May 31, Mr. Mwenda said that the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine was a good example, citing cases where the Western media is driving the agenda including openly standing with Ukraine soldiers and citizens and praising their bravery in “face of a full-scale invasion by Russian forces”

“As we watch the rolling coverage of the Ukraine war on British, American, and other Western channels, and see journalists show empathy, emotion, and humanity as they report on atrocities unraveling before their eyes, we should start questioning what objectivity, neutrality, and impartiality really mean in journalism,” he said.

He reasoned that journalists are not robots and urged them to take a stand for the good cause of the country and the people.

“Journalists in a polarised environment have to hold a set of morals and values that they defend no matter what they do,” he said, adding that, neutrality, does not mean one does not have a stand, but rather “we must strive to maintain a set of values and norms”.

Mwenda said that journalists shift from being mere reporters to being opinionated journalists with divergent views on critical topics.

Asked Mr. Mwenda if his close relationship with the first family and being close to the high table of NRM politics does not affect his objectivity in reporting, he such relations are healthy and that they can help one to get insider information.

“Failure to have these kinds of relationships will make media houses and journalists settle for press release stories and not investigative pieces,” he said.

“As a journalist, I am supposed to approach anyone who’s a player. I deal with Generals, the President, and Ministers,” he said, adding that “Journalists’ neutrality and impartiality are like beauty, they lie in the eyes of the beholder. Your integrity is what matters”.

Mr. Tabu Butagira, the Managing Editor for Nation Media Group-Uganda neutrality can’t be appreciated by those pressed against the way.

Quoting Desmond Tutu he said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” “Clearly, there are mice and elephants in this country and if you claim neutrality as a media house or an individual journalist, the mice will not appreciate your neutrality in the face of injustice.”

“The November Riots: The Lives We Lost story was a special operation. Before we published the series, we received calls stopping us from proceeding since we were headed for elections. When BBC Africa through the BBCAfricaEye did the same story, I was summoned by Police,” he said, adding that When you do journalism a certain way, you are deemed either as a good or bad person. We need to be careful on the subject matter of objectivity and neutrality.”

The moderator, Ms. Agather Atuhaire, asked Mr. Butagira to weigh in on commercial interference, he said: “If you are running a business [as a manager], you must generate the money. Therefore, you must balance your interests and be objective.”

He added: “I am a Managing Editor at Nation Media Group where we’ve over 300 permanent staff. If the government wants to close us down, what do we do? We’ve to adjust accordingly.”

Dr. Patricia Litho a media scholar and the board chair of Uganda Media Women’s Association, urged journalists to stick to the principles without inserting their views. She said the audience can make their own judgment. Dr. Litho slammed the growing use of anonymous sources and said it’s affecting neutrality in newsrooms.

She alleged that journalists many times want to embed their opinions in stories and the only way they can do that is to use an anonymous source.

Canary Mugume, a news anchor with NBS said being truthful beats neutrality.

“On whose behalf should we seek neutrality? Should we seek neutrality on the journalistic core values?”

Google refers to neutrality as “the state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict, disagreement, he said.

“If you check my Twitter bio, I seek to be truthful, not neutral. Because no matter the facts in the story, the audience will decide whether you are neutral or not, sometimes even by the way you appear on TV, your accent or what prejudices they seek to feed.”

He said that neutrality is difficult to achieve but “we can always aspire to guarantee truthfulness in stories we publish, as long as we don’t pick out certain pieces of truths to fit our own individualistic narratives”.

Ms. Tracy Kansiime Tendo, a multimedia journalist with the Media Challenge Initiative, asked journalists to make their stand clear.

She attributed the lack of neutrality among journalists to the education system.

Ms. Tendo asked the Uganda Communications Commission, the media regulator, to champion neutrality among media houses.

Mr. Wilson Kaija, who heads the training department of Uganda Radio Network (URN) said the discussion on neutrality has been narrowed to taking sides.

“Journalists should rise above the noise created by this binary debate and the tendency for people to be drawn in two extremes. We should look at issues at a vantage point where we are able to decide which direction to take without necessarily having to be encumbered where we have to be impartial or not.”

He said: “There no way you can be impartial when telling a story of injustice”.

On his part, Mr Guillaume Chartrain, the deputy EU ambassador to Uganda challenged the Ugandan media houses and journalists to observe the ethical principles when covering stories.

“It is of utmost importance to ensure that your articles uphold the integrity and neutrality that form the bedrock of the moral contract between you and your readers,” Mr. Chartrain said.

“We have been collaborating with Ugandan media and journalist organizations, and our commitment to supporting freedom of expression in Uganda remains unwavering.”

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