Last night’s discussion at POLIS of the Guardian’s ‘It starts with a village project…’ in the Ugandan village of Katine raised plenty of questions about development journalism and the media’s accountability, and whether media organisations can work in the long term with NGOs and charities.
By far the most interesting remarks were made by Richard Kavuma, a Ugandan journalist working for the Guardian on the project for two weeks every month.
Kavuma, who was named CNN Multichoice African journalist of the year in 2007, is caught in the middle between AMREF, the Guardian’s partner in the project, and the paper – a tension he has learnt to live with and not let impact upon what he sees as his purpose as a journalist:
“My own understanding of the media from the elementary classroom is that we are supposed to be the voice of the people. Especially those who do not have the voice to be heard. I saw it [Katine] as an extension of what I was meant to be doing as the media.
“This project is bringing the voice of Katine to a wider interational audience – what they perceive as their problems and how they think the project is helping or not helping them.”
“There have been challenges at the centre of some fairly salient tensions: I’m not trying to become a PR officer, I’m a journalist.
“Traditionally the media is supposed to be a watchdog, we scrutinize things. But the NGOs get money from donors and they’d like to prepare good reports on how much the money has done.”
The Guardian and AMREF have been trying to recruit more local journalists to write for the project, but to little avail, as journalists in the country’s capital are already overworked, Guardian writer Madeleine Bunting added.
As a result Kavuma says his reporting has become something of a novelty and has attracted a great deal of interest. Part of this, which he is too modest to mention, comes from more focus on people-led reporting – a journalistic style not widely used by the Ugandan media:
“The tone is changing and becoming more people-centred [in the Ugandan media]. For example, it’s not reporting about mortality, but writing about a woman who is losing her life for becoming pregnant.
“I can’t claim the credit, but I am part of a new movement, which is putting people at the centre of development reporting.
“In Uganda high politics is seen as selling papers. The issue for the media is to try and spot the high politics in the development issues and writing stories as an issue of not numbers but of people.”
The content site for the project had its highest level of traffic last month with 46,000 uniques, Bunting told the gathering. But, as contributor and Guardian environment editor John Vidal pointed out, it’s not about traffic, the project ‘had to be done’.
Despite its flaws – huge costs, some conflict with partner organisations, slow recruitment of Ugandan contributors – those involved insisted there were invaluable lessons to be learnt from the scheme, which is just a third of the way through.
Kavuma agreed: there are lessons about a journalist’s role and writing as a development journalist; but more importantly there’s an opportunity to educate the public about the development process – how hard/easy it is and the ongoing progress.
A move away from, as Madeleine Bunting said, the traditional reportage of development:
“[S]weep in, show the extent of suffering and say that your cheque will put it all right and actually not got back to check.”