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19 years ago .
Journalists should be fair to all
IN 1988, I was travelling through Uganda and stopped at the Masindi Hotel for a visit. It was late afternoon and after booking in and taking a shower, I decided to refresh myself at the bar.
By Andrew Ray Allam

IN 1988, I was travelling through Uganda and stopped at the Masindi Hotel for a visit. It was late afternoon and after booking in and taking a shower, I decided to refresh myself at the bar.

As I sat for my first drink, several large Swedish men and a slim and quiet Scottish man, who introduced himself as Colin Blaine of the BBC, suddenly invaded the bar.

The Swedes were soldiers supporting the convoy of Lifeline Sudan. Everybody had heard of the difficulties the convoy had experienced. How a famous film star had ceremoniously seen them off on their several thousand kilometre journey from Nairobi to the interior of Sudan and how the convoy had promptly driven round the corner and parked up because it was not ready to go yet.

It had struggled for more than a week to get from Nairobi past Kampala, now suffering breakdowns and delays as 50 trucks struggled over miles. The Swedes were exhausted now and still had a less than certain future ahead of them when they entered Sudan.

The whole thing was a mess and Colin Blaine knew it. But when he telephoned in his evening report to the BBC, he praised the aims of the convoy and the commitment of the participants.

He carefully avoided any mention of the difficulties.
I was seated near him as he made his report and I heard every word. I was amazed. Here was a man who knew that the whole thing was likely to end in disaster, but he failed to report it.

When he sat at our table, I asked him why he had not taken the chance to criticise the UN operation. He turned to me and spoke in that soft, educated Scottish accent, “But it might work and the people of Sudan need the food. “I work for the BBC, probably the most powerful media organisation in the world. If I went for the cheap shot destructive criticism, leading nowhere, the donors might withdraw support and the people of Sudan would suffer. The UN people are trying their best. This time they have been slow and inefficient, but they are learning and next time and the time after that it will get better. Their efforts must not be destroyed by the words of one man. We must give them that chance, especially the BBC and me. It’s called responsible journalism.”

Those words made me want to become a journalist. I wanted to become a person who could, by his words, inform and educate the public in a truthful and responsible manner. It was the finest lesson I ever received in what was later to become my professional career, and I got it for free from a master of his profession, over a beer in Masindi Hotel. Responsible journalism: what an ambition to aim for.

To see all sides in an argument, consider not only the fact, but the weights and responsibility of what I write and say. It’s no wonder the Rotarians use the four-way test of what they say:

Is it the truth?
Is it fair to all concerned?
Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

The president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, has often criticised Ugandan journalists for their lack of critical analysis. He has a point.

When journalists allow those attitudes to cloud their judgement and their critical analysis, then they are not being fair to themselves or the public they serve. Is what they write being fair to all concerned? I am not a Ugandan, but I am, I hope, an impartial and constructive observer and my observations of the political process and the relationship of Ugandan journalists to that process leads me to certain conclusions, which I hope are fair to all concerned.

The first is that journalists in Uganda lack role models. This is understandable, given that free journalism is a relatively new experience for them. Until recently, the various governments controlled the press and ensured papers and radio stations promoted the ruling party line. Once given freedom, journalists had only that one-sided approach as their role model and they tended to promote “their party line”. They have taken their right of freedom of speech and tended to forget that with this right comes responsibility; the responsibility to be fair to all concerned.

Journalists are such powerful people. It is they who have access to the ears and hearts of the people. They who, for good or bad, have an opportunity to influence the minds of the people and the course of events.

Perhaps that is why the President asked them to fulfil the duty of their profession: to gather information, analyse and report in a manner that is fair to all concerned and enables the public to do likewise.

Responsible journalism requires that the journalist sheds his preconceived attitudes and prejudices and brings to the subject at hand only his or her cognitive and analytic ability.

Winston Churchill once said, “A drop of ink makes a million think.”