The winner of this year’s CNN Multichoice African Journalist Award is Richard M. Kavuma. Richard, 33, is senior staff writer of The Weekly Observer, a young newspaper which has a following among the country’s educated elite. He is the first Ugandan to win the prize.
Richard’s career in journalism began when, as a secondary school student, he played truant one day to go and ask a national newspaper to allow him start writing for it. He was encouraged, and he never looked back. His inspiration to become a writer started with his pocket radio, with which, like millions across Africa, he listened to BBC world news.
The award, which attracted over 1,670 entries from more than 700 journalists, was for his eight-part series on Uganda’s progress towards the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. His comment on receiving the prize was that it renewed his dedication to act as a voice for the voiceless.
MercatorNet: How well do you think the West understands Africa?
Kavuma: Some understand us; some don’t. They think we are backward and live in trees, and all there is here is war, famine and death. Some don’t imagine that Africans use iPods, drive the latest cars and use other gadgets. That impression, I believe, may be shaped by sheer ignorance and a skewed coverage by TV and other media.
But there is increasing interaction between the West and Africa, and the Western media is beginning to portray Africa correctly. Besides, some of what Westerners believe about Africa is justified, because of the corruption and the warlords; our leaders are doing us a great disservice.
MercatorNet: Do you think the West appreciates African values?
Kavuma: We have to distinguish between the United States and Europe.
The histories of Africa and Europe have been intertwined over the past 100 years, and before. Europeans have a more realistic appreciation of Africa and what drives Africans. When Europeans visit the African countryside, where most of our people live, they are impressed by the core values, such as kindness and the sense of community.
The US has a more simplistic view. The Clinton administration hailed the "new breed of African leaders" in the 1990s; leaders such as Museveni (Uganda), Kagame (Rwanda), Meles Zenawi (Ethiopia) and Afwerki (Eritrea). At that time they looked promising, but now all of them are harassing the media, some changing the constitution for their own benefit or setting ruffians to beat up protesters in the streets. Shall we be like Zimbabwe in 20 years time?
MercatorNet: Do you think the Western press is too preoccupied with its own trivial issues?
Kavuma: After 9/11, there was increased interest in the Muslim world among citizens of the US. I took that to mean that America noticed that it had perhaps ignored a critical part of the world. They identify more with Europe and China; but if Uganda finds big oil supplies and becomes a leading exporter to USA or Europe, perhaps they will notice us a little more. It depends on the level of interaction. South Africa, for instance is much better known that Burundi.
Also, the US school curriculum aims at making children good American citizens. The Ugandan curriculum, which remains faithful to the one inherited from the British, opens out more to the world, with a focus on history and geography.
MercatorNet: What is the role of the media in Africa?
Kavuma: As elsewhere, to inform the public, to blow the whistle, and be the voice of the voiceless. But here, they have to highlight real African problems; if children die because the mosquito nets don’t reach them, this must be reported and those responsible held to account
In the West the media has greater impact; people in top positions are forced to resign if they misbehave. But in Uganda a government minister can brazenly say he and his team have the role of monitoring media houses, and closing them if they overstep the mark. Our media need much courage; but even more, persistence. And Africa badly needs the media.
MercatorNet: The Western media is well established and well-equipped. The African media is young and poorly equipped. Do you think African media can catch up?
Kavuma: Our technical standards are not far behind. There are qualified media professionals already in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa.
Our literacy standards are lower. An appreciation of the media’s role goes hand in hand with literacy levels and plays a part in developing literacy. In Uganda, with 28 million people, on a good day fewer than 80,000 copies of newspapers are sold. This shows how weak our civil society is. Many newspapers now have a section for children, to get them into a newspaper culture early.
MercatorNet: How important is the media for developing economies?
Kavuma: We have to develop our institutions and create a citizenry aware of their rights, and encourage leaders who are accountable to their people. The media’s watchdog role aims to see that we achieve that.
We have to ensure that development aid reaches the people and improves basic living standards, and does not end up paying for a perimeter wall for a minister’s house in Kampala.
Many developing economies are authoritarian states, but in some the media spends much of its time criticising the government – it is normal procedure – whereas here the media is condemned for that. Fortunately the Western media and civil society will come to our defence when we are attacked, as, for example, in the raid on the offices and TV station of a Kenyan media house last year.
MercatorNet: Do the African media look to the West too much?
Kavuma: Given our history, we do look to the West a lot. We should look to the West for their focus on accountability and ethical standards, and not rely on pleasing advertisers so much. We have to learn what the Western media do and how. But we want our content to be more selective, more in line with our values and national aspirations.
MercatorNet: How do you see the future of the media in Africa?
Kavuma: It is tied to the development of democratic governance. The media can help build a more empowered citizenry, and the media itself will benefit from this empowerment. It has to provide a forum for local and national debate.
The future is precarious: repressive tendencies still exist. The independent media are seen as enemies of the government. Kenya is going backwards; their new Media Bill will force journalists to reveal anonymous sources.
The hope is that on-line newspapers will, as technology advances, play a greater part, even here. But this requires investment. We must also find more innovative ways to reach the villages, which are isolated from the literary media. Independent radio stations provide one way. A freer press will develop once education spreads and people become more aware of their rights.
MercatorNet: Finally, you seem to take it for granted that local journalists are responsible.
Kavuma: (ponders a moment). Many of us are; at least we try to be responsible.
Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, Uganda.