I don’t mind dying for the right story – Sudhir byaruhanga

AIIJ had an interview with NTV Uganda’s Investigative Journalist Sudhir Byaruhanga on his award winning investigative story at African Center For Media Excellence (ACME) 2020  “Ranches encroachment”. He shares his experience as an investigative journalist and what makes him stand out of the crowd of other investigative journalists in Uganda.

Why Investigative Journalism?

When you look at the content available in our mainstream right now, TV, Radio and Print. It is visible that investigative pieces are still lacking and still a virgin area for Uganda. You can hardly get a very good investigative story a week or even months. 

What we see as investigations sometimes are just some features that are expounded on and given some little bit of depth but do not reveal so many facts, therefore it’s an area that I find still virgin hence an opportunity for every journalist in Uganda to harness.

Journalists are at liberty, it’s like going into an orchid and you are free to pick whatever fruit you want. Journalists need to know what they want. Do you do stories and go home and wait for your salary or do you want to do a story and create an impact? Do you do stories that contribute to the betterment of Uganda. The stories that we do of; he said, she said, this happened. They never make Uganda better.

People are getting bored of news, they are getting away from the mainstream media and resorting to social media. If we are to wallow in the steps of those that were there before us or even before innovations, it is ideal for all the journalists in Uganda to indulge in investigative journalism.

It takes a lot of courage to pull off a good investigative piece. You must have full support from your bosses and they must be ready to be patient. What kills investigative journalism in Uganda is, the bosses want input every day because it’s what counts to them but they forget that you could have one piece in two months and that story will leave an impact and will always be linked to the station where it aired. 

The impact is felt once and it might come after a long time, but it is felt more than an ordinary story that would air on a daily basis. If I walk around the street and I ask people who watch everyday, asking them the stories I have done, they will tell me MABIRA, NODDING SYNDROME, GOLD MINES IN MUBENDE e.t.c; those stories always have an everlasting impact on people’s lives.

 I am not someone who is easily shaken by threats, despite the fact that they are there. “I don’t mind dying for the right reason, people die for wrong reasons. If you kill me for the story I have done, if it makes Uganda better and it can make other people’s lives better so be it.”

 It takes a lot of time and endurance to come up with a piece, if you are not patient in investigative journalism, you will easily give up or ignore some bits. How much depth do you give to your story? You can’t focus on one side, two or three, every person you are accusing in that story must be reached out however, if you still fail you should prove that you tried.

Is there a future for investigative journalism in Uganda?

The future for investigative journalism in Uganda is still blurry, (he responds with a depressed face), media houses have not sat down to invest in that properly and effectively, they are still in their comfort zones. (He questions the security of investigative journalists who are covering sensitive stories), are media houses protecting them? Where journalists sleep, is it safe for them to continue pursuing their stories while in the field?

Until the media houses realize that it’s a department needed in the newsroom and demand for the results, you will see investigative journalism go further.. Many of my colleagues in this fraternity have the capacity to pull off these stories but they lack support from their bosses and resources. 

How are you a unique investigative journalist? 

He smiles, I always have support from my bosses. I am trained, I have the opportunity so it’s a catch 22.

I am able to pull off stories because I know how to gauge when I am safe and when I am not. I know how to hide from the wrong guys, I know how to play with their minds and I know how to play a smarter game than them. It takes a lot of thinking, experience and commitment. 

If it were up to you, which story do you feel deserved to win an award?

I believe every story that I have done deserves an award, each story comes with its own impact. You come back and you are trying to put the story together but you can’t hold your tears, with that particular impact you long for.  

He goes silent for a while then with a calm soft voice he adds, an award for me, is not about what comes with it. It’s an appreciation and a recognition that you have understood and acknowledged that I am contributing towards the betterment of my society. It is such small things that encourage journalists to work harder. 

What was so special about the story that won you an award?

Smiling…, what stands out in that story is, the whole list of people who encroached the ranch were police, army, highly placed officials within the government. The story of the ranch had enough sources. I didn’t just mention the encroachment but I showed the evidence. It was so extensive, it had depth and multiple sources and I think that’s how it stood out because I didn’t leave any stone unturned. 

It was four seconds of footage of soldiers standing there in army uniform but it’s what was missing in that story to qualify a statement that I had mentioned “that army officers were manning the site owned by Kahinda Otafiire as he is going on with his construction of a glass factory.” 

What challenges did you face while covering the story?

When I went to the ranch in Njeru they told me soldiers are manning the area and this was an expanse (an area that has no development) In mind, “I was like at what point are these soldiers but I had to walk towards the place. I went into the bush and we managed to capture the activities taking place. I was like what if in the process of filming, we are shot dead.” 

For any investigation, it will never rub everybody the right way or else it’s not an investigation, it’s a promotion and those people can retaliate very badly. 

At that time, I was debating whether to rely on the drone or go there and film the story on my own but I needed to see. 

Are you settling now that you have an award?

He sarcastically laughs, whether I get an award or not, it’s not what pushes me. I don’t care If I get one or not, what I care about is the impact I create within the population and the society I live in. If I meet someone on the way and they say, well done, it is very rewarding. 

What advice do you give to the budding Investigative Journalists?

“Put the highlighted in brackets”, do your best, don’t back down because somewhere in the middle of the investigation someone will want to buy you off to drop the story or buy you to pursue another angle of the story. We have a lot of influential people or advertisers who inject money in different media houses and have an influence on investigative stories, especially if the story hinges on what they are doing.

If you are faced with such a challenge, don’t sell your soul. Do what is important and what is important is the initial idea you had, do not stop along the way. You can do the story and not get the millions they want to pay you but, in future the name you make will fetch you hundreds and hundreds of millions.

Trust me I don’t regret being a journalist.