Saturday, June 23, 2012

Uganda and the UK - comparing the news

Three weeks ago, I left Uganda for a short break in Scotland, returning last weekend.

When I left Uganda I was feeling pretty fed up. The news in the country's press had been gloomy: corruption, riots and a disintegrating education system. Time, I thought, for a spell in a nice well-ordered country like Scotland where drivers keep to designated lanes, always stop at traffic lights and have to pass a driving test. A country where people do not die because medical staff can't be bothered to treat them or demand bribes their families cannot afford. A country which does its best to provide a good education for every child.

The Britain I arrived in seemed quite alien, particularly when I did a brief dash south across the border. Evidence of the Jubilee was everywhere: flag-waving, ubiquitous images of the Royal Family and street parties. Red, white and blue in abundance: not exactly a typical week to be visiting.

I soon found that the rose-coloured spectacles and partial memories of the expatriate do not always provide the most accurate perspective of the country left behind. More telling is what gets published in the media. Now, with the Jubilee well over, what are the journalists actually saying about each of my 'home' countries?

Lying on the desk in front of me are several newspapers: copies of last weekend's Scottish Herald and British i (the mini-version of the Independent) and copies of the Ugandan Sunday and Daily Monitor.

How much, then, do Uganda and the United Kingdom have in common, apart from a shared colonial history which barely lasted a hundred years?

'Corruption' is a word which, sadly, is always associated with Africa. Indeed, predictably, the front page headlines in the Sunday Monitor were Tax fraud syndicate exposed as URA (Uganda Revenue Authority) digs in. This fraud is truly international. It starts with goods being bought in, and transported from China, arriving in Mombasa in Kenya and receiving fraudulent documentation in Nairobi indicating that they have been imported from the East African Community (hence escaping import duty). The goods then slip into Uganda through the border post at Malaba without being properly checked, finally making their way to a bonded warehouse where computer records are falsified. 

A recent article in The East African reported that the country lost more than $1 billion between 2005 and 2011 in dubious tax wavers claimed by well-connected politicians for private companies. The beneficiaries included Barclays Bank and various investment companies. 

I wonder how many Ugandan children all those missing taxes could have educated, how many half derelict schools they could have patched up and how many teachers' salaries they could have paid?

Corruption stories of various kinds are scattered through my posts about Uganda. We come across corruption on a regular basis in our professional lives and it never fails to sicken us. Over the last couple of years, I have naively reassured myself that corruption in Uganda is beyond anything one would find in Britain and that where it does exist in the UK it has minimal impact on the lives of ordinary people. I am used to telling my friends, 'at least people don't die from corruption in the UK'. 

Mmm, I'm not so sure now, particularly after lunch in Edinburgh with my VSO friend Fiona (who sent her best wishes to her friends back in Uganda, by the way). As Fiona pointed out, corruption is not just an African issue. Her examples have made me think much more deeply.

The front page of last Sunday's Herald features a brief recapitulation of the Rangers story with more - far more - inside. The Premier League football club had recently been taken into administration. During investigations it appeared that it had been involved in corruption on a massive scale, cheating tax authorities of thousands of pounds, with the connivance, presumably, of some important people. While ordinary British people had been struggling to pay their taxes and chased for every penny they owe, Rangers had just suggested to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) that it should pay only a few pennies in the pound of what it owed, a ploy not open to the rest of us, unfortunately. Thankfully, HMRC refused.

Is corruption in Scotland, though, all that different in its impact from what we are familiar with in Uganda? In Uganda, when the rich fiddle their taxes, we can see the direct effect on its neglected unstocked hospitals and dilapidated schools. It doesn't take much imagination, however, to see the rather more indirect - but still real - impact of tax dodging in Britain.

Rangers is located in Govan, one of the poorer areas of what is probably the poorest city in Britain, Glasgow. Many of its fans come from the immediate area and the households of many of these fans will be supported by health, education and social services which struggle to keep vulnerable families afloat and protect and care for their children. Clearly, in failing to hand over the taxes which pay for such services, the Rangers' Board and officials have demonstrated their contempt for the very fans who have kept their club going. What is worse, over the week since then media coverage has moved on from the original fraud to frantic efforts to keep the club alive despite its corrupt financial dealings and long and unpleasant history of sectarianism. One rule for the big players and another for the little people.

What other news stories point to similarities or differences between the two countries?

While I was in Britain, the long drawn out saga of the Leveson inquiry was still in the news, and will be for some time.  David Cameron had just given embarrassingly limp testimony relating to his cosy relationship with Rebekah Brooks of News International and the infamous 'Yes, we Cam' text. So far the inquiry has lasted for 86 days and cost £6 million. It might result in significant changes to press regulation which could see the 'good guys' (The Guardian and similar) paying the price for the misdeeds of the gutter press, which is unfortunate given the role of the former in bringing to light some of the latter's dubious activities in the first place. What has, understandably, caught the public imagination is the fact that many of the victims were 'ordinary' people whom we can relate to on a personal level, people like Milly Dowler's parents and Kate and Gerry McCann. What may result, depending on the recommendations of the inquiry, are significant changes to the way journalists can operate.

In Uganda there is no such thing as privacy; most people live their lives in the open. Houses are just for sleeping in. It is hardly surprising, then that we are much more likely to see the kinds of pictures in our newspapers which in Britain would be regarded as intrusive, for example photos of the dead and dying. Victims of violence appear half naked and with their terrible wounds on show for their mothers to see. Last Sunday the paper presented a photo of naked conjoined twins from western Uganda, legs spread wide for our titillation, the picture taken just before their operation and subsequent deaths. Journalists hacking people's phones to get spicy personal information or spying through curtains to take intrusive pictures are less of an issue here, then, than in Britain. 

More of an issue is people's awareness of the existence of police informers and photographers in their workplaces, their villages and at communal gatherings and meetings: one in 10 of the population, we have been told.

In the UK, people accuse the newspapers of going too far; in Uganda one can only admire journalists for their bravery. Fourteen reporters accused of treason have just been released after three years without trial in a top security jail. The court case which resulted in their acquittal only took place following media publicity. Other political prisoners are said to rot in jail for years without their cases coming to court. Ugandan judges are surprisingly independent. Of course, there are the odd accusations of bribery in the legal system, but on the whole the justiciary is notable for its preparedness to make pronouncements which may not be to the taste of the governing party.

Just as a debate is going on in Britain about the regulation of journalists, so it is in Uganda. The government is proposing changes to the Press and Journalism Act 1995 to include the prohibition of information injurious to national security and to the economy. Six out of the 12 members of the Media Council would be appointed by the Minister for Information. There are already threats to close down radio stations as happened after the Buganda  riots a couple of years ago. The new law may require journalists to get annual renewable licences. Attacks on journalists have increased from 38 in 2009, to 58 in 2010, to 107 last year. The police actually have an official 'media crimes unit'.

In January this year, the US ambassador to Uganda, Jerry Lanier, quoted from the Reporters without Borders' Press Freedom Index pointing out in his Monitor article that the country had dropped 43 places - from 96th to 139th place out of 170. He said, 'Press freedoms are the modern day indicators for measuring the health of a democracy'. 

Other commentators have said that the Ugandan press is increasingly censoring itself. Objective journalists are being replaced by less critical ones, said a recent report titled Media Liberalisation in Uganda: Threatening Journalists Rights and Freedoms. Papers are increasingly filled with trivial articles on western-style home improvements, the entertainment industry and columns for women on how to keep their men. It is said that, as in other areas of life and work, some journalists have become state agents .

All this is very sad. When the NRM took power 26 years ago, one of the first things it did was reduce restrictions on journalists and demonstrate that it could tolerate critical media.

What does all this add up to? The kinds of issues we have become aware of in Uganda - corruption and the ability of the press to report on this and other contentious topics - are also issues in the UK and, no doubt, in other countries. What is different is the context, the way they are dressed up for public consumption. What may also be different is the extent to which the ordinary citizen is able to say - or can be bothered to say - 'enough'.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Press freedom in Uganda

Minister appears to advocate corruption 

Home from home

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