September 28th marked the International Day for the Universal of Access to Information also known as the Right to Information Day. Access to information empowers citizens to access important information and promotes transparent and democratic societies. Media is a major avenue through which citizens can access this information. Without a clear partnership and collaboration with media, agencies and other stakeholders are likely to fail to reach out to the citizens effectively. It is also necessary to train media and ensure that they present factual information and make voices of the people heard.
“Journalism should represent the voices of the people,” remarked Dr. Fred Kakooza a Senior lecturer at the Makerere University Department of Journalism and Communication.
Dr. Kakooza made these remarks while appearing on a panel to discuss the role of media in social accountability during the tripartite round table meeting that engaged civil society, government and media to reflect on the role of media in promoting social accountability organized by Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) in partnership with the Aga Khan University’s Social Accountability Media Initiative (SAMI). The round-table discussion which was held on Friday, 4th October, 2019 at Imperial Royale provided space for 12 journalists from both national and sub-national media houses to engage with civil society and government agencies’ public relations officers and participate in a constructive discussion on how the voices of the people can be heard and effective accountability promoted.
“Civil Society must invest in media reporting if they are to succeed in making people’s voices heard,” Dr. Kakooza continued to note.
Indeed, in an effort to promote a well-equipped media that can report on social accountability and represent citizens’ voices, SAMI partnered with AFIC to train journalists in various topics including identifying fake news, mis/disinformation, fact-checking and social accountability documentation. Through this partnership, three training sessions for journalists in Kampala and two sessions in Mubende and Mityana districts were conducted in June 2019. Following these training, it was imperative that media, civil society and government reflect on their partnership and collaboration in order to build trust and generate consensus amongst themselves for effective social accountability.
In fact, as the discussions started, a high sense of mistrust amongst those three practitioner groups could be felt in the room.
“Civil Society has no understanding of how the media works. They think you can just call us for a press conference even when they have no news to present,” indicated one of the journalists who seemed frustrated.
Civil society too seemed frustrated with media which didn’t report effectively about the various social accountability programmes they were championing but focused on controversial political news. On the part of the government, they felt that media was always out to write only negative stories and their reporting lacked professionalism. In all this was overall governance challenges like the high rates of unemployment and capitalistic nature of media houses that charge high sums of money to publish information and unprofessional journalists that many times demand money to cover stories.
Despite this frustration amongst all the partners, there was a shared agreement that media was still very important in promoting social accountability and ensuring that citizens’ voices are heard.
Dr. Levi Zeleza Manda a media consultant from Malawi who facilitated the social accountability in Africa session indicated that media was the connecting link of all the necessary factors needed to make social accountability succeed.
“Media plays a crucial role in facilitating democracy and promoting rights and equitable development,” noted Dr. Sam Kamau, a media and communications scholar who heads the SAMI project at the Aga Khan University.
However, Apollo Kakaire, the Communications and Advocacy Manager, at the African Centre for Media Excellence indicated that government must be ready to disclose information and engage the media to promote social accountability. While the government public relations officers agreed to this, they noted the challenge of bureaucracy in government that many times frustrated the process of communicating.
Civil Society was also called upon to ensure that they are well prepared and provide shareable information that could guide the media to cover social accountability stories. Kenneth Lukwago, a senior reporter and producer at Radio One- a prominent radio station in Uganda encouraged civil society and government to invest in their communication by providing evidence and be available to share information whenever called upon by the media.
By the end of the round-table reflection, it was evident that there was a need for heavy investment in media and collaboration amongst the three partners if they were to ensure effective accountability and building a democratic society. Media could only share what civil society and the government were able to provide.
“We believe that strong partnership among media, civil society and government will enable us to build a favourable environment in which the citizen’s voice is central,” noted Gilbert Sendugwa, the AFIC Executive Director in his closing remarks. “This is the main reason we have continued to partner with media and promote access to information.”