Ugandan media complicit in misinformation against Rwanda

There are things we generally hold to be true because they have either been proved to be fact, or have been passed down as such, or they have always been like that and become conventional wisdom.

But, as it usually turns out, the truth or otherwise of many of these things are determined by circumstances and motives of those who define and spread them.

Take one example. Few people, except atheists, question the belief that God is omnipotent. It is widely accepted to be true. Of course there will be some, like one of the robbers hanged with Jesus, who will take issue with it.

He taunted him, daring him to save himself and them from the cross if he really was the Christ.

There is also the widely held belief among Catholics that the Pope is incapable of error in certain matters of doctrine. That does not mean that there are no good Catholics who question papal infallibility.

For long, the earth was thought to be flat, fixed and the centre of the universe around which all other planets revolved until one Galileo shattered that belief with the revelation that the earth actually revolves around the sun.

For his troubles, he was condemned as a heretic. Today, there are people, especially in Europe and America, who are returning to the idea of a flat and fixed earth. Luckily for these, there is no danger of being ostracised from religion or society.

The media, too, has been passed on to us as having certain defining characteristics that make it a trusted source and vehicle of information. It is generally held that the media is independent and impartial, especially in so-called democracies. That, of course, is a useful ideal, but the reality is different.

Most media pretend to be balanced and objective. Others have a nuanced, subtle parochialism. Many more have done away with pretence altogether and are brazenly partisan.

All these shades of the media are present in our region of East Africa.

In neighbouring Uganda, for instance, the mainstream media has thrown off the cloak of objectivity and become increasingly biased and prejudiced, particularly when reporting on Rwanda.

They present a distorted picture in which Rwanda and President Paul Kagame are presented as bearing responsibility for the sour relations between the two countries. They are the problem.

Uganda and President Yoweri Museveni are the victims of nefarious schemes of their southern neighbours.

This, of course, is not true. But the sad thing is that ordinary Ugandans believe these distortions. Those that may differ, have no other source of correct information or outlet to voice their disagreement.

The media has become complicit in misinforming the public. One recent example will illustrate.

The government-owned New Vision newspaper last week carried a headline: Rwanda delays border talks. There are two issues with this headline.

First, it is a distortion. Rwanda did not delay the meeting. Uganda did, on two occasions, and without explanation or even communication. The date was moved from October 16 to November 13 and then 18, and even then Rwandan officials first learnt of these changes in the media.

Rwanda, on the other hand, had the courtesy to request a postponement of the meeting, in marked contrast to the Ugandan officials who did not deign to inform their counterparts before going to the media.

Second, the said talks are not about the border.. They are about much more, including the abduction of Rwandans, their detention and torture in unknown and illegal places without trial; harbouring and supporting terror groups intent on destabilising Rwanda, and economic sabotage.

The media in Uganda, even that that used to claim to be fiercely independent and objective, has been beating hard, to deafening levels, on the border question, but strangely silent on these other issues as if they do not exist.

On reflection, this is not strange in the circumstances in Uganda today. It is part of a history of Uganda’s leadership distorting the real picture, trivialising serious issues or obscuring them, and in the process creating an alternative reality. The only new thing is that they have now co-opted the media in their schemes.

This manner of dealing with other countries reveals a number of things. At times this is a diversionary tactic. At others, it comes off as condescension. But it also has some unintended outcome: it shows the authorities to be unreliable.

Some will recall President Museveni’s puppies story in trying to explain his abrupt abandoning of Kenya and equally swift embrace of Tanzania for the route of his oil pipeline to the coast.

As is increasingly becoming the case, Museveni’s folksy story telling fell flat. The switch of pipeline plans and the puppies did not go down well with Kenyans.

You might also remember him instructing his officials to sell to Rwanda two megawatts of electricity from a small hydro-power station in Kikagati while they purported to work on upgrading transmission lines to carry hundreds of megawatts of electricity Rwanda was purchasing from Kenya and Ethiopia.

The Ugandan media has learnt lessons of distortion and contempt from the president and now faithfully toe the line. On reporting on relations with Rwanda, they now defer to the brooding, menacing silence to which he has retreated.

Why they have done this, we can only guess. One thing we know, however.

It is not because they are burning with renewed patriotic fervour. Ugandans have an apt explanation for this kind of behaviour: you don’t speak when you are eating, especially with a full mouth. It is considered to be bad manners.

The views expressed in this  article are of the author.