Journalists & politics: to endorse or not to endorse candidates?

As the nomination days for candidates seeking to contest in Uganda’s 2021 general elections get ever closer, you may have seen a significant number of journalists who work for local and national publications or broadcast outlets express their support for some politicians on social media.

This was particularly evident during the primaries to select representatives at various levels for the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, the hitherto leading opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), and the on-going selection exercise of flag-bearers for the new-kids-on-the-block, the National Unity Platform (NUP) party.

In some cases, the endorsements that the journalists make on their respective Twitter, Facebook or WhatsApp accounts are subtle while in others, they are turning into a blatant show of partisan support for the candidate of their preference.

For instance, on September 1, 2020, a reporter with local news website ChimpReports, Dickens Okello, wrote, “Hon. David Bahati has for the [last] two consecutive sessions of Parliament [been] declared the best legislators and remains the most valuable debater on the government side. The people of Ndorwa West, your MP has done his best as a legislator. Keep the political spirit burning and return him to Parliament. Endorsed.”

Similarly, on September 3, 2020, Okello offered support to another candidate, a former minister, on his social media page. He wrote, “Rt. Maj. Jessica Alupo Epel is a good-hearted and dependable leader. Katakwi District voters, please return her to Parliament. Endorsed.”

Speaking to this writer in a telephone interview on September 26, Okello defended as his right the decision he’s taken to canvass support for political leaders he believes have Uganda’s interests at heart. He said the fact that he is a journalist does not take away that right.

“Fundamentally, as a journalist, I am supposed to remain objective, fair and balanced, but there are three things that inform my decision to support candidates. First, I am a citizen. Secondly, I am a taxpayer. Thirdly, I am a voter. So, if I am a stakeholder in this country, I also need the best for this country,” he said. “Let us also understand one thing; we have our social media pages which are supposed to be for our personal views.”

Okello explained that followers of his work need to know there is a distinction between his professional and private life when consuming the information that he shares in his different capacities. The critics of his work are those who don’t make the distinction.

“When I am writing an objective story, that’s going to be on the Chimp Reports website and social media pages. That’s where I don’t take a side. But for my Facebook, that’s for my personal views. So long as I am not lying, it’s not defamation, and it’s not going to affect national security, there’s no problem with me expressing my views,” he said.

Another journalist who has come out in support of political aspirants is Sadab Kittata, the editor of Witness news website. On September 10, Kittata, who also reports on a freelance basis for The Observer, offered came out in support of Masaka Municipality MP Mathias Mpuuga, who is seeking to retain the seat. He wrote on his Facebook page, “Articulate, Intelligent, Reasonable… Mathias Mpuuga, the perfect choice for Masaka.”

In an interview for this story, Kittata said he looks at social media as his private space and he does not take his social media views into his professional work. He added that unlike others, he is open about his political leanings and interests.

“Those [candidates] that I have shown support for, I never write stories about them because I know people will not take it to be an objective story. They will think that I have been influenced,” he said. “For instance, if you look for a story from me about Asuman Basalirwa, you will never find it.”

Kittata says that where he offers support to particular candidates, he often puts disclaimers that he is doing it in his personal capacity, and not as a journalist. This was, however, not the case

“One thing I don’t like about us journalists is that we pretend too much. Many of us get actively involved in these things, like politics by showing support to politicians, but come and pretend to be neutral. And I have always wondered, ‘why don’t we pick a leaf from the Americans?’ Because you can know that Fox News is promoting the Republican agenda and CNN is promoting the agenda of Democrats, and it’s clear. So, I fail to find a justification for us to continue pretending and yet, quietly, we get so involved in the political processes,” he argued.

According to Kittata, part of the hypocrisy that he has seen in Uganda’s media sphere is that journalists demonise colleagues who support the ruling party but will praise colleagues that show open support for the opposition.

“To me, the best thing for us for you as a journalist to declare and come out openly and say, ‘on this issue, this is my stand’ so that we can know that when Sadab is talking about this, he is out of the other coat of a journalist,” he said.

It must be noted that the majority of the journalists working with Uganda’s leading media organizations such as Nation Media Group – Uganda (Daily Monitor newspaper, NTVKFM, etc.), Vision Group and The Observer have largely restrained from engaging in the endorsement of candidates. But that does not mean it is not happening.

On September 18, the Public Editor for Nation Media Group – Uganda (NMG-U), Charles Odoobo Bichachi, published an elaborate article in which he articulated what in his view, the media-consuming public expects from the ‘fourth estate’ generally and journalists in particular. 

On the issue of fairness and balance within the media, Bichachi wrote, “Should journalists take sides? Professionally, they shouldn’t. They can and do have sides, but this should never be seen in their stories and pattern of reporting.”

In a telephone interview for this story, I asked Bichachi whether NMG-U had found patterns of partisanship within the stories it published, let alone the social media activities of its journalists, that should be a cause for concern.

“I have raised the flag [about bias] because I have noticed this within some of the stories in the media generally and within NMG,” he said. “I have flagged this matter for the editors to take note and take appropriate measures from growing because it goes against the NMG and the rules of good journalism.”

Bichachi, who has in the past written about the slippery slope that social media presents for journalists, believes that the best way to overcome some of the contestations about what journalists should or should not do during elections coverage is to offer refresher training.

“It is important that the newsroom gets refresher training on elections reporting, social media policies within the media house,” he said.

Organizations such as NMG-Uganda have a set of rules of engagement that clearly outline how the company requires its journalists to conduct themselves during the time they work for such an entity. Besides the general editorial policy, they also have a social media policy and an election reporting policy among others. The challenge for NMG-Uganda and other media organizations is to ensure that all the journalists, many of them often quite opinionated, well-known and eager to leverage on their prominence in society, tow the same line.

Okello, for instance, admitted that while Chimp Reports has clearly documented guidelines on how journalists working for the organization should conduct themselves professionally and in their private activities since they are closely associated with the company’s brand, he often goes against the company’s recommended principles.

“We have a strong editorial policy [at Chimp Reports]. We are supposed to remain not only objective but even the way we carry ourselves in public, like me who reports from Parliament, there are standards expected of me. Yes, at times what I post conflicts with the editorial policy but when I feel it is necessary, then I am going to use my power of writing and speak out,” he said.

Between September 6th and 12th, I travelled to the four cities of Arua, Gulu, Lira and Soroti to support Media Focus on Africa – Uganda in its effort to train journalists on the key principles of election reporting. Having covered three general elections before, I had several experiences to draw from that I shared with the journalists, including on issues of objectivity and fairness, conflict of interest and election bribery.

Before each session, I posed a trick question, asking the journalists I was training whether any of them had a candidate they had backed who had lost in the party primaries. In all the four districts, not a single journalist admitted they supported a candidate.

The answer was always the same: “We are journalists who must be objective so we do not support any candidate.” It was difficult to tell if the journalists were merely playing to the gallery or actually held those views close to their hearts as professionals.

It was only in Lira where some journalists were candid enough to say that they are human, live and interact with the population and so have their biases and also faced pressure from candidates who, when elections are done, they will continue to live amidst. What they wanted to know was information that would help them ensure that whenever they do their work, they are able to do it as objectively as they can, despite the challenges they had shared.

At the training workshop in Gulu, Jane Angom Mujoma, a production manager at Speak FM, said that journalists often let their guard down on social media yet it has an effect on the way the public perceives the fairness of the stories that they publish on the mainstream media platforms.

“We must continue to live up to principles of good journalism; fairness, balance, accuracy. These are things that we cannot run away from, regardless of the fact that we are doing it on digital platforms,” she said. “Sometimes when we are doing these things on social media and digital platforms, we don’t think twice [about the consequences], but we need to uphold these principles [of good journalism].”

The author is a Ugandan journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor with The Observer, The East African and Daily Monitor newspapers. He has covered Uganda’s last three general elections (2006, 2011, and 2016).

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