Uganda’s Missing Narrative

Alfa’s Second Story

There was a young man, hardened eyes, who spoke to us about justice. We knew him as Alfa, no last name. Formerly abducted by the L.R.A at 15, he was now being sheltered among other former abuductees behind corrugated walls and chicken wire at a vocational training school in Pader, Uganda. ‘Former abductees’ was the given term – ‘child soldiers’ had connotations, we were told. Alfa was the one who approached us at first, pensive but with a broad smile, “So this camera here, it takes video too?” he had asked us as we past by the scrawny tree he was resting against. He had a blue biro between his fingers which he kept fidgeting with, biting the nib, tapping. Yes, we nodded, it takes video.

When we sat down with Alfa, we asked him to tell us two stories; one about his past and one about his future. He spoke about his former life as if he had told it a million times before. A terrible tale, ripped from his childhood, innocence beaten out, and a daring escape during a crossfire. When it came time to speak about his future however, he stopped. He simply looked at us and said, “you don’t want to talk about that.” He smiled. “Why?” we had asked. “Because,” Alfa gave out a breath and put his pen in his pocket. “It’s boring. It goes nowhere.” The first story lasted thirty minutes,  it had guns, bullets and slaughter. His second story lasted only five words yet was far more tragic. Those second stories never get told.

When Did It Become All About Us?

As I write, the #KONY2012 phenomenon is sweeping the Twitter-verse taking our Facebook timelines  along for the ride. On April 20th you might well be waking up to your city plastered with photos of a man who despite a generation long campaign of murder, kidnapping and rape, has mostly gone unknown among our popular culture. A 30 minute documentary from American NGO Invisible Children calling on young people everywhere to ‘make Joseph Kony famous’ has been an unprecedented success in terms of raising awareness and causing a swell in popular interest about the long running conflict.  The film paints Joseph Kony as the monster he is – the bad guy – and that the problem we face is that our governments won’t do anything about him unless we make it impossible for them not to. If we succeed in persuading them to act – we become the good guys. As this campaign gathers steam however, so has the criticism. The issues most touted lies beyond the style, beyond the immediate story and beyond the fuzzy feeling of being part of something special. This issomething special, no doubt about that, but what that something exactly is remains difficult to pin down.

Let’s take a moment to reflect. We watched this video, well produced, we liked the music. The kid was cute. Compelling idea. For me, it ticked all the boxes it could have possibly ticked in terms aesthetic appeal. Now what? Link it across my streams, watch the ‘likes’ rack up, perhaps join a few friends in painting the town red on April 20th. If you were to ask me why? I would genuinely say I believe it to be right. That I don’t want to live in a world where a man like Joseph Kony does what he does without consequence. But then, when did it all become about us?

My point is that when you stick up a photo of a wretched, evil man and tell me I can stop him doing this to a young woman, then hold up a photo of the young woman, lips sliced off, limbs butchered and rendered stubs, I’m going to agree with you. Sure, absolutely, yes, let’s stop him. My considerations then follow the narrative laid out for me and so too with the compelling call to action which is to be part of a global meme, and thus history.

I happen to believe, however, that how you do something is just as important as what you do.

When Doing Something Is Not Better Than Doing Nothing

There has been a wealth of writing about Invisible Children, some vitriolic, others fair minded criticism of its role as an NGO. It seems to have a development as well as a campaign element at it’s core and it is this uneasy balance that has garnered most of the heat. When CODOC were in Uganda in 2010 we had the opportunity to speak to many NGO’s on the ground. There is incredible work being carried out in collaboration with local communities to bring northern Uganda back from the brink. Many of those we spoke to were happy to stay out of the limelight; they ‘did development, not flashmobs’ they would tell us. It would be safe to say, however, that there was a healthy scepticism of IC and what they felt translated from the campaigns and the reality behind the ‘calls to action’. Campaigning for troops on the ground for example, whether in an advisory capacity or not, should flag up concerns among those who had called their congressmen and governors to do something in their name.

This piece of legislation in particular, promoted by IC among college campuses and advocacy rally’s calls on the US government to help  militarily eliminate the LRA. Dwell on this, for a moment. The LRA is reported to be 90% made up of abducted children – military defeat would mean engaging in combat and targeting of the very victims of this war; these children are the LRA. The UPDF by the way are also connected to atrocities committed during the conflict. The legislation also gives no hint as to a time frame for US military withdrawal from Uganda. I’m not sure what those college kids were signing but would they really have signed up for that to be carried out in their name?  Forgive me, but if I were to break it down for a five year old, I would say: More Guns In Africa Are A Bad Idea. Lets Not Do That.

Film is a powerful platform to get a message across. It is absolutely natural and indeed honest that we wish to do something substantial to help. When we are offered a way to do it, it’s also natural that we respond in a way that we think might make a difference. But making a difference to what end? The #makekonyfamous campaign is a good idea, and those that call it naive and tasteless ought to dial it down. Taste depends on whose asking. I happen to think a Holocaust Memorial where visitors get given a bracelet with a number on it upon entry and then get told if they have ‘died’ or not by the exit is pretty tasteless, but that happens. The problem is not with the style it’s with the substance – at the very least misleading, at the worst it could be dangerous. At the same time, it really is on us – not the plucky guys from Invisible Children – who are at fault. No-one forces us to hashtag anything, we do it by our own volition and thus the responsibility ultimately lies with us.

Voices From The Ground

The final point I would make is that we have a tendency to get wrapped up in our own experience and sometimes that can fuel a personal drive to help – IC’s backstory in this instance is well documented and should be commended – we here at CODOC are all about the personal take. But when it goes to the extent that this gets in the way of truly listening to those who actually live the horrors of which we only get snapshots of day in day out, that is when we become the bad guys. The problem with only having a singular narrative is that our opinions suddenly exist in an echo chamber. Words and slogans come back to us amplified and reaffirm our own held convictions, however hollow. We desperately need to step back from paternalistic instincts to help an ‘ailing Africa’. These people are strong and have a spirit unlike any I have witnessed. The very fibres of CODOC were wrought under those Ugandan skies and the people have left a deep, deep impact on our own perspectives on how best we can collaborate with them. Dialling a complex and nuanced issue to bare essentials absolutely works to get the point across in immediacy but without fully engaging with the responsibility of action – we could end up hurting those we seek to help.

In 2010 we spent a month with the Acholi people of northern Uganda, listening to their stories. We came away struck by their capacity to forgive. The Acholi speak softly, even timidly about themselves, their stories and their land. What hope do their voices have against the clamour of our own? If you’d like to help, watch the two clips below of our documentary ‘Forgive Me Mother’, and make up your own mind.

Please do spread the word for KONY2012, by all means write letters, email and make a noise. Painting the night sounds good to me – just do so with an informed opinion. I’d like to direct you to two sources that have been of immense value in terms of highlighting the underlying issues: Resolution:Possible (friends of ours) and The Enough Project. Start there.

Smashing The Mirror: Journalism For Purpose

The camera spins off-kilter. It points up and jaggedly zooms out as we see the bigger picture. A mass of dust, a cloud of debris surging on devouring a building, a lamp post and a car, ceaselessly moving toward us. The camera now jolts, crouching behind a car zooming out still further as the dust cloud bears down all around us. It is September 11th and for most reporters on that day ‘zooming out and getting the big picture’ extended only as far as the day itself. September 11th was the biggest picture, and every day after it was the story.

Two years shy of a decade on and journalists find themselves purveying over events since. The subsequent wars and the incalculable ruptures in global security have prompted us to begin to pull at threads, to ask difficult questions of our own responsibilities as ‘witnesses of histories’. Couldn’t we have done something during the wake of 9/11 to perhaps temper all the madness? Did we choose, in the end, to comply with the inevitability of a darker narrative?  The disturbing truth can be found in the questions that were asked and those that were not: ‘Who?’ Muslim Terrorists; ‘How?’ Hijacked Planes; ‘Where?’ Afghanistan. With the nature of footage satisfying the news value the immediate facts were all that were reported. The pursuit of truth may be a lofty term to describe the nature of journalism, but as we’ve seen since, if the pursuit of truth is the aggregation of detachment, of statistic and uninvolved newsmen asking, ‘how high are the flames?’ by the time the fallout or ‘the story’ had bled into Iraq and 7/7 it was hopelessly too late to ask ‘Why?’.

It was the framing of the line of questioning following 9/11 that proved too narrow. A claim made by Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick, the current evangelists of the so-called Peace Journalism model and whose book ‘Peace Journalism’ consists of practical guidelines that seek to provide a genuine alternative to ‘war reporting’. Ethically informed reporting tuned toward gaining an understanding of the context of the conflict, the book argues, might have helped in avoiding unnecessary wars. The charge then is that this lack of context might have fuelled the lead up to the Iraq war when it could have helped prevent it. Lynch and McGoldrick recognises the catalytic nature of media upon conflict. They suggest that traditional war reporting presents a frame that is focused on the immediate, is invariably elite orientated and supports a dichotomy of good versus evil. Logically then, according to the model presented by Lynch and McGoldrick, journalism could be used to perhaps help settle disputes and foster peace by in turn framing a conflict in terms of non-partisanship, multi-party orientation and an avoidance of demonizing language.

This is a sizable estimation of the influence media has upon foreign policy but it is an idea that should not be dismissed as an over-estimation. Lynch himself concedes that news cannot itself tell people what to think, though it can be most effective in directing attention. In other words, the news media can tell people what to think about. Lynch borrows the phrase ‘cultural conditioning’ for this and maintains that Peace Journalism raises ‘unexpected questions’ by cutting across many narratives whereas ‘War Journalism only reiterates what we already think of as answers.’ Tim Weaver however, in a 1997 Crosslines article, warned of a number of dangers with journalists using their profession as a means for, what he sees as, political activism:

‘If this is accepted, then it means that facts may be set aside if they do not confirm the greater truth. But truth is a matter of perception until the facts are marshalled to support it. Ignoring or bypassing facts distorts the truth.’

Those disapproving of Peace Journalism argue that the higher cause should be the essence of the reporting itself – that is to report. Anything interfering with the old-fashioned sense of professionalism would undermine the reporter’s independence and thus their credibility as a trusted source of information.  The confusion lies, I believe, partly in the name. Lynch again himself concedes that ‘Peace Journalism’ was termed as to court controversy. The practical aim of the model is simply ensure that non-violent responses to conflict will be ‘given a fair hearing’ and not, as Weaver suggests, to ‘advocate peace’. The point therefore would be not to adopt a variety of potential peaceful initiatives but to explore them as viable solutions. This would then help the public to assess for themselves whether the idea of having only two possibilities – violence or inaction – as being the two only options.

There are a number of examples held up by Lynch and other academics as examples of conflicts that may have been avoided if a greater depth in public perception would have been present at the time. Iraq and the case of the non-existent WMD is one such case. This is an instance where official assumptions went unchecked. The presentation of Bush versus Saddam is cited as wholly indicative of war journalism and its dichotomy. The actual lead up to war became the story and therefore that was what was being reported. But why was the transition from Colin Powell’s initial UN presentation and an inevitable war with Iraq so sudden? Robert Fisk writing for the Independent (a paper Lynch sees as having many of the hallmarks of peace journalism if not in name) in 2002 wrote: ‘We are being set up for war against Saddam…but we will not – repeat this one a hundred times – we will not mention oil.’

NATO’s war on Yugoslavia in 1999 presents an intriguing case. Lynch regards this as a prime example of propaganda reporting. A war in which ‘military action was the last resort, where the Serbs were to blame, and that Milosevic brought the bombing upon himself by refusing to sign the Rambouillet Accord. The Rambouillet Accord was a peace plan devised by the international community that would have Kosovo win autonomy within Serbia. But as John Pilger, a lone dissenter among a largely approving press pointed out, the accord would also allow NATO forces unfettered access to the entire territory of Yugoslavia. This was a point of contention for both the Serbs as well as the Kosovo Liberation Army, neither of whom signed the deal. But those questions were never asked; Milosevic was the villain and was framed as such. So instead of focusing on why the peace accord wasn’t signed, the breakdown was presented as Milosevic ‘digging in his heels’ and leaving NATO no other alternative but to use military force.

The very concept of peace journalism, will invite criticism from the journalistic community if for nothing else other than the contention it holds for the existing structures of conflict reporting. Weaver’s argument that reporter’s compromise their journalistic integrity seems to holds some credence initially, but peace journalism as a practical approach goes beyond the individualistic notion of reporting. It suggests rather that the issue is the whole news organisation and that what is needed is a ‘…deliberate creative strategy to restore discourses and perspectives that are routinely marginalised’.

News coverage of conflict is grounded in the idea of using conflict itself as a news value. As a result the presentation of war has become a sensationalised device in order to boost ratings or circulation. As the world becomes smaller, engaging and exotic images are harder to come by. In his tongue-in-cheek short documentary Adam Curtis describes the effect this has on viewers as ‘Oh Dear-ism’, a term that suggests that compassion fatigue has us de-sensitised to images of violence around the world. From a journalistic standpoint then, this perhaps has us paint an ever-increasingly sensationalistic picture of the world in order for us to hold public attention. We have shifted toward focusing on how we direct attention rather than what we are directing that attention toward. Peace journalism could perhaps refocus this shift back onto the question of why. If that happens, perhaps we will then be able to present the world as a mirror of society rather than a dramatic melodrama of heroes and villains, losers and victors. For even the greatest of dramatists knew the value of presenting reality as a mirror rather than a cinema screen:

“When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror, for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.”

Harold Pinter – on Receiving his Nobel Prize in 2005

On Media Ownership And The Informed Opinion

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Why on earth would anyone want to be a journalist? Many a doe-eyed new entrant approaches media institutions, the gilded fourth estate, with eager awe and anticipation. The Andrew Marrs’ and Anna Politkovskayas’ of the future amble on toward a career of substance, of worthy truths and holding power to account. Few of them notice the branded signs adorned above the shiny glass double doors when they enter  – News Corporation it reads, TimeWarner, another – but instead they draw a collective sigh of relief and draw strength from the fact that at least they didn’t sell out. Forward to a career where you speak your mind and have people listen.

Onward to a life of real journalism.

Of course, people do listen. The elemental burden of an informed opinion constitutes the basis of the democratic process. The power behind the media lies in this very fact; Media has the singular ability to captivate and direct our attention in which ever way it chooses. This lends itself conveniently to the grander schemes of the political, corporate and power hungry elite. Get in with that lot and they would have a direct influence over our opinions and choices. Our desires, our dreams, our aspirations and our votes – all up for grabs. Mass media therefore, in all its forms and outlets, becomes the all purpose megaphone which enables those who wish to make us follow suit, shut up and cough up and do so smiling. The ones who sit at the top of tree, the ones who hold the megaphones, are more than mere ‘owners’ in industry. They become amongst the most influential people in the world.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane barked at his editor once: “People will think what I tell them to think!” The demagogic story of Kane was a thinly disguised nod to real-life media magnate William Randolph Hearst, a man whose ear was coveted most notably by John F. Kennedy amongst others. In 2008, high into the campaign season, Barack Obama sat knee to knee with a certain Rupert Murdoch – the Hearst of the present day – explaining why it’d be in both their interests if he won. He’d sell more papers. This side of the Atlantic also, Rupert Murdoch has been described as the 24th member of Blair’s cabinet by Alistair Campbell on more than one occasion:

“His presence was always felt. No big decision could ever be made inside No.10 without taking account of the likely reaction of three men, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch. On all the really big decisions, anybody else could safely be ignored.”

News Corporation, Murdoch conglomerate owns the most widely read UK news publications in The Sun, News Of The World, The Times and has around 37% daily and 39% of Sunday newspaper sales. Both these figures are above the 20% share circulation set by the government. This is a man whose media empire is above and beyond restrain, and in today’s state of economic flux Murdoch continues to amass an empire that even Kane would be in awe of. His reputation as a ruthless tycoon makes for interesting debate among those who hold the media and its proprietors as complicit in the workings and sanctity of a democratic society. Murdoch himself denies crossing any of these fishy moral quandaries. Using the powers at his behest, the many arms of his media empire to impart far-right agendas? Surely not.

In 2002 UK rules on foreign ownership in media were relaxed. By that time Murdoch had firmly become a broad New Labour supporter prompting suggestions that the proposed bill had a ‘Murdoch Clause’ where they were perhaps doing him a favour in lieu of his backing. rupertcaricature1More recently Andrew Grice in a 2007 article for The Independent disclosed some of the details of conversations between Murdoch and Tony Blair in the run up to the Iraq War. Blair had phoned Murdoch on the 11th, 13th and the 19th of March 2003, a day before the British and U.S led war on Iraq began. Grice goes on to mention another date of a call between the two on the 25th April 2004. This would place the call shortly after Blair had been pressured to acquiesce to to a referendum on the E.U constitution. A bill that in Murdoch’s words, when attending a business conference a few days later, would “…deter investment in Europe which would over-regulate every business and everybody.” The subsequent U-turn in government policy has always been a source of controversy. He denies any influence and has made sure the people who are supposed to be finding out if this is so, don’t. Yet Murdoch’s links to close quarters of political power seem to be in direct conflict with the notion of free press.

Professor Noam Chomsky credits political commentator and newsman Walter Lippman with the term ‘manufactured consent’. He explains it thus:

“By manufacturing consent, you can overcome the fact that formally a lot of people have the right to vote. We can make it irrelevant because we can manufacture consent and make sure that their choices and attitudes will be structured in such a way that they will always do what we tell them even if they have a formal way to participate.”

Chomsky, in his analysis of media and those who are complicit, journalists are merely willing puppets via which the elite agenda is filtered through unto the public. This is not some loony indoctrination method deployed by Murdoch’s minions once the eager few pass through those double doors fresh faced and hungry. Many established journalists maintain that they got where they are because they preserve a sense of objectivity and due professionalism. But lets look at the reasons behind why they are the ones in these positions. There is no reason why the likes of Murdoch would allow critical analysis upon themselves. Why would he? But this is not done through subjective censorship. It is because  their career may not have gone as well had they not been correctly socialized in the first place. So that as Chomsky puts it; “…there are some thoughts you just don’t have, because if you did have them, you wouldn’t be there.” Those doe-eyed new entrants had been gotten long before they passed through these shiny double doors.

If Murdoch and Berlusconi et al. came out tomorrow and conceded that yes they indeed do have a say, as proprietor of businesses, over how the business is run. What could we say? They are selling a product, why would they want to sell anything but their own idealisms? The problem is, media is ours too and we, also, are the product. Our opinion is our value. The denials peddled out by these moguls, about how much influence they hold over editorial content, are borne out of our own prerequisite notions of what the media stands for. It is the nature of our faith in the institution itself that wants to make sure that what we are being told is not being manipulated. It is in the benefit of democracy and in the benefit of our piece of mind. The men with the megaphones have a lot of admirers wanting to inform us about our choices. We could, perhaps, choose not to listen.