Capturing The Story in Uganda: A Reporter's Tale

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Months after a disputed election, Uganda erupts into flames -- one reporter shares her experience in the heart of the chaos.

For journalist Philippa Croome, a freelance gig at a national newspaper in Uganda has become both unexpectedly dangerous and rewarding.

Today, Uganda's streets were filled with demonstrators protesting the shocking forced arrest of Dr. Kizza Besigye, a leading opposition figure and key mover in the weeks old "walk to work" campaign.

The Red Cross Baby

While police were brutally dispersing demonstrators on April 16 in a Kampala suburb, Croome captured a Red Cross volunteer rushing a three-week old baby to safety, with three photojournalists in close pursuit.

Local media reported the baby had been exposed to teargas but the quick action of Red Cross volunteer Michael Ssengendo ensured the infant's survival. 

It was a touching photo heavily passed around social media, that offered a glimmer of hope, in a week which ended with the death of a 2-year-old girl, killed by stray bullets during the disruption of another protest by Ugandan security forces.

In a recent interview with the Black Star News, Croome told a compelling tale about life as a journalist in Uganda at this time of great tension, violence and uncertainty and the unexpected ways her reporting has impacted the lives of Ugandans.

BSN: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you found yourself reporting from the streets of Kampala?

Uganda was the best spontaneous decision I ever made. I had just completed a six-month contract in Malawi working as a media trainer with a Canadian NGO, Journalists for Human Rights. I was placed at one of the two daily papers where I worked alongside reporters and editors to increase human rights content.

The experience was incredible. The challenges I faced there – whether resource-based, combating government influence, or adapting to cultural differences – were immense, but invaluable.

My undergrad degree in Political Science had me gravitating towards covering an African election, and Uganda’s was right around the corner. It was also somewhere I had always been fascinated by, in its reputation as an African “success story” for one – despite the decades-long rule of its president – I emptied the contents of my bank account on a one-way ticket to Kampala and went all in.

My original plans to stay only a month or so before heading back to Malawi by road were quickly forgotten. I started freelancing with the Monitor, IRIN and the Toronto Star – I had fallen hard for Uganda, its vibrant people, media, and incredible potential.

BSN: Can you describe the situation in Uganda right now?

People are hungry, frustrated, and disenchanted. Not only by the cost of fuel and living, but by the growing levels of violence, lackluster response by government and the politicization of an issue that affects so many people so clearly.

Despite the participation in protests being relatively small, tension is growing. On Thursday, opposition leader Kizza Besigye was brutalized by police – security officers smashed in his car window and tear-gassed him directly in the eyes, after which he was violently thrown into the back of a vehicle and sped away.

He was still blinded by the end of the day. The footage broadcast across the country shocked everyone for its new level of brutality. The Minister of Internal Affairs issued a statement justifying the actions.

The worst riots yet broke out today (Friday) and at least five people were killed, bringing the death toll to 10 – including the fatal shooting of a two-year-old child.

Where demonstrations so far have centered around the rising costs of fuel, the violence today is widely said to be a reaction against Besgiye’s violent arrest, shifting people’s frustrations onto the police brutality that is becoming commonplace.

Government is setting dangerous precedents. Last week, after one police officer peacefully escorted another opposition leader to work and was hailed by citizens across the country for his actions, he was suspended.

BSN: Are military still heavily deployed?

Definitely. The days where demos have been called for (twice weekly, on Mondays and Thursdays) by the pressure group spearheading the cause have seen deployments in most Kampala suburbs.

Walk-to-work paths of leading opposition politicians take the heaviest military presence as they attract the largest followings. Deployments include regular officers, anti-riot police, plainclothes and intelligence officers, and even the military.

Today, the military was everywhere. Government has spared no expense on the blanket ban on demonstrations that has been in place since the February election.

BSN: How are you coping?

Considering the real danger on the streets on those specific days, remarkably well. I haven’t yet found myself in the worst of the violence. The team at the Monitor has been a huge part of that comfort level. We’re part of a team, looking out for each other, as well as the other journalists out there with us.

I also credit a course I took in conflict-zone reporting, where I spent two weeks on a military base in Canada reporting on a pre-Afghanistan exercise with the troops. The training I got there was invaluable – though it didn’t focus on protest or riot situations, gave a good sense of how to protect yourself while on the job.

BSN: Were you affected by the teargas or afraid for your own safety?

I was and continue to be affected by teargas – on that particular day, repeatedly and for many hours. But reporters covering the protests are pretty used to it by now.

That day, I was afraid for my own safety only in one short moment – the initial burst of violence when police started into the crowd. While I don’t shy away from the action, I won’t run directly into harm’s way either. Maintaining a reasonable distance keeps me from immediate danger, but leaves me still able to do my job.

BSN: What other memorable things did you notice that day?

I’m continuously impressed by the dedication of Ugandan journalists to chase these stories. The three men chasing the Red Cross volunteer in that photo is a testament to that. It inspires and motivates me to keep up with them, and do justice to each and every story I cover.

BSN:  Where else have you worked as a journalist?

I’m actually pretty new to the profession. I graduated from j-school in May 2010, and a month later was on a flight to Malawi. During school, I did a six-week internship at the National Post.

BSN: What is the environment like for journalists in Uganda right now? (Museveni said he "could" charge a BBC reporter with a treason charge recently during a press conference, while answering a reporter's question)

While journalists are generally permitted to cover the unfolding events freely, there has no doubt been cases of intimidation and violence towards them by security forces.

A Daily Monitor journalist was today roughed up by police in Jinja, and his camera confiscated. There are growing reports of journalists sustaining beatings from police. Journalists were barred from one of the centers of violence in town.

Some of my colleagues have also been threatened with pending arrests and deportation.

BSN: What inspires your courage and drive in reporting, or as a journalist?

As I mentioned before, working alongside the drive and courage of my colleagues.

But beyond that, I suppose it’s simply my love and deep respect for this job, instilled in me by the incredible people who have mentored me along the way. From my newspaper teacher in my first year of j-school, the amazing Ken Becker, to my field producers on that military base in Alberta, Canada – Jen Jensen and Mike Vernon, to an incredible journalist and friend, Rex Chikoko in Malawi, my coordinator at Journalists for Human Rights, Jenny Vaughan, and of course my colleagues at the Daily Monitor here in Uganda.

What really keeps me going here is just how important this kind of reporting is – watching how many people are suffering, and knowing first-hand the powerful role media can play gives me all the drive I need.

BSN: Where do you intend to go next?

I’m flying back to Canada at the end of June (must check in there for a while before my family boycotts me). But I’m already scheming ways of coming straight back, to keep doing what I’m doing. I have never felt more dedicated or driven in my work, and don’t want that to stop. I hope to stay in the region for at least a few years to come.

BSN: Can you tell us about any other memorable experiences you have had while in Uganda?

My most rewarding reporting experience came after a story I did on the country’s national referral hospital, Mulago.

I highlighted the fact that a number of cervical cancer patients spent their days on the hospital’s floors – it is chronically under-funded and could not provide enough beds for them.

The story was put into the right hands by a Canadian friend and doctor, Joda Kuk and his wife Jen Hompoth, whose charity Road to Care funds the trip to Mulago for cervical cancer treatment that so many in rural areas cannot afford.

Money was raised, beds were provided, and a social worker was even put in place. It was the first time I saw a concrete example of a story I wrote having an impact, and has only inspired me further.

BSN: What have you learned so far?

It feels like everything and more. But I have so much more to learn about this country, this continent, and am constantly challenged to do so (which I love).

But ways of getting information are so often so vastly different for one, how to navigate the threats to press freedom another.

The main thing I’ve learned is how little I knew about both Malawi and Uganda before I came and saw for myself. As much as I read or followed through international news, the amazing countries they are – from the resilience and laughter of the people, to the food, culture, music, nightlife, boda bodas, pork joints… (I could go on) – there is so much to life here that I never could have dreamed of, and have yet to discover.

A million untold stories, and so little time.

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