“Do not kill those cockroaches with a bullet; cut them to pieces with a machete,” blared Rwanda’s Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in April 1993, as fighting between ethnic groups culminated to become one of the most brutal genocides of the 20th Century.
RTLM gave citizens across Rwanda the green light to slaughter ethnic Tutsis, as well as any Hutus sympathetic to the plight of the Tutsis. Its journalists blamed the Tutsis and Belgian troops with the United Nations peacekeeping mission for shooting down the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, leading to the murders of 10 Belgian soldiers. The broadcast launched a wave of savagery that resulted in the death of some 800,000 people in less than four months.
In neighboring Uganda, which has seen its own share of conflict and bloodshed, local journalists are looking to learn from the mistakes of the Rwandan genocide by spreading the word nationwide about “peace journalism” to radio stations—radio is the most widely consumed medium in East Africa. The country remains vulnerable, with conflicts raging at its doorstep in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west and, to the north, in South Sudan.
“The way you report on the news becomes extremely sensitive during times of conflict,” said Margaret Sentamu-Masagazi, executive director of Kampala-based MAMA FM radio, a public affairs network in the Ugandan capital.
The concept of “peace journalism” was conceived by Johan Galtung, the Norwegian academic who founded the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. It was modified and adopted by a number of different teaching institutions around the world which sought to include the media in conflict resolution strategies.
At the Uganda Media Development Foundation (UMDF), the local pioneers of the Project Consolidating Peace Journalism, a small team believes that reporters and editors constantly make decisions that help their societies evaluate and value peaceful alternatives to conflicts. With that, they are working to instill in journalists across the country the technical and editorial know-how for peace reporting, with an emphasis on areas near borders with war-torn nations. Their efforts have thus far been so successful in Uganda that they are now taking their project on the road with the hope of launching similar initiatives in the DRC and South Sudan.
“Before, if you got control of the radio station, you could basically announce that you are the new president and nobody can say anything,” said UMDF Executive Director James Kigozi. “UMDF is trying to promote news programs that are helpful to the community, whether to address social issues, domestic abuse, land disputes and such, and we bring both sides of the conflict every day to hold constructive debates on the radio, instead of fighting in the street.”
The project, funded by Bread for the World, a German relief and development agency linked to the Protestant Church, is building skills among journalists to use conflict-sensitive approaches in programing and reporting, and to give a voice to the victims of conflict instead of focusing on official sources. Each network that is approved for the program is given a monthly stipend of about $260 (UG572,000) to fund equipment, training, and other required expenditures. Salaries are traditionally low at news organizations across East Africa, and so retention rates have also been low. UMDF says building loyalty through training is important to retaining journalists with peace journalism skillsets.
Uganda has never had a peaceful handover of power since winning independence from the British in 1962. As the signs of old age begin to show on Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president for the past 28 years, some are concerned that that legacy could come back to haunt them. The country has long been engaged in territorial disputes with neighboring Tanzania and Kenya, and has an occasional spat with the DRC over the oil-rich territory along the shores of Lake Albert. The DRC also accuses Uganda of maintaining influence in its mineral-rich eastern region, while Uganda says DRC has failed to disarm Ugandan rebels on its soil.
Domestically, conflict was commonplace across the country, with up to half a million people killed by state-sponsored violence between 1970 and 1980. However, since the late 1980s, Uganda has rebounded from a brutal civil war to become a relatively peaceful, prosperous nation. But news executives say there is still much to learn if Ugandan journalists are going to do their part to help keep the country at peace.
“In 2009, we had a situation where there were riots in Kampala because the news stations were irresponsible, telling people that they should go out in the streets and fight,” said David Mukholi. He is managing editor of Vision Group, Uganda’s largest media group, which includes the New Vision newspaper and a number of radio and television networks. “Most of the presenters and reporters in Uganda are not trained. They go on the air and start talking, taking positions and using zero objectivity.”
Thus far, the Project Consolidating Peace Journalism is up and running at 14 stations across Uganda, with a concentration along the northern and western borders, and another eight stations are on a waiting list. Last month, the group visited the University of Beni in eastern DRC to introduce the program to local radio stations there. The program was supposed to begin in South Sudan this month but has been put on hold temporarily until renewed fighting dies down.
Even Rwanda is reconciling with its dark past, embarking on a number of conflict-sensitive journalism training initiatives itself. In 2009, Valerie Bemeriki, the voice of RTLM, was sentenced to life in prison after admitting she played a role in inciting violence with her calls to battle, and several RTLM executives have been handed stiff penalties by the UN’s Rwanda tribunal.
“There are many inexperienced journalists out there who fuel conflict,” Sentamu-Masagazi said. “Training is essential for us if we plan to move forward.”
The author is a 2014 Fellow for the International Center for Journalists in Uganda.