Is Uganda’s New Vision newspaper above the law?

By Rebual Shemsu

31st January 2011

First of all, let me introduce myself: I am an African man residing in Tokyo and working for a Japanese consultancy company.  Last year I was assigned to Uganda as a consultant for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) on a project promoting the return and resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons [IDP] communities in Northern Uganda, Acholi Sub-region.

I stayed in Gulu town (the project base) for more than a year until the project was completed in December 2010. JICA, a development partner of the Ugandan Government, is engaging in many community development projects across the country.  JICA, as a funding agency has been pouring huge amount of financial support into many projects in Uganda for a long time and is still investing billions of dollars across the country, including Acholi Sub-Region.

Unfortunately, JICA was wrongly accused by The New Vision newspaper of “…not paying 3million Ugandan Shilling (about US$ 1300 only) to 30 casual laborers from Atiak Sub-County of Amuru District”.   The writer did not stop to think [and investigate] whether it was really possible that this development partner, which is investing billions of dollars to the improvement of the community, actually hired casual laborers and did not pay them US$ 1300.

Let me take you to the core of the story:  On December 28th 2010, a Journalist [Mr. Denis Ojwee] employed at Gulu branch of The New Vision wrote a story entitled “30 Casual Laborers in Atiak Strike Over Unpaid Salary”.  It stated that the casual laborers were contracted by JICA to construct a classroom in Atiak and they seized a JICA car for non-payment and concluded by claiming that attempts to get comments from the JICA Office were futile.

Let me put the story straight:  First of all, JICA as a funding agency has never contracted casual laborers to construct anything in any country.  It provides the fund and hires a consultant.  The consultant in turn hires a local contractor for the construction of the project and supervises the work.  Contracting the casual laborer is solely the responsibility of the local contractor.

Secondly, the project in question was not for construction of classrooms, but a workshop for Atiak Technical School.  In addition, JICA has had no car seized at the site.  The car belongs to a construction company in Gulu.  Finally, JICA Gulu office gave its timely comment regarding the incident.

The Editor in Gulu [Mr. David Labeja] showed me the comment made by JICA’s Gulu office stating that the casual laborers were the contractor’s full responsibility.  When I asked him why this comment was omitted in the newspaper article, he said it was the Editor-in-Chief at the Head Office [in Kampala] who edited the article and made the omission.

After reading the news from the internet here in Tokyo, I was assigned to travel to Uganda to explain the error in the report and to get the news corrected.  On January 13th 2011, I visited the New Vision office in Gulu.  I submitted two letters written by my office in Tokyo and JICA Kampala office requesting for the correction of the news and an apology to JICA from the news paper.

I explained the situation in detail to the Editor of Gulu office [Mr. David Labeja] and he cross-checked my story with the contractor hired by our company.  After he found all the truth from me and other sources, he refused to write a formal apology in The New Vision newspaper and instead advised me to contact the Editor in Kampala [Mr. John Kakande].

Mr. John Kakande literally told me that they do not print any apology to anybody in their newspaper.  Period!  On January 18th 2011, the paper ran a news story related to the settlement of the payment to the casual laborers from Atiak.  No apology, no correction regarding the previous news was made.

In addition, there was no official answer for the two letters I submitted to their office.  As concerned African, I am wondering whether this kind of journalism is common in all the news-media in the country and beyond.  As a development partner to the Government of Uganda, JICA deserves a formal apology from The New Vision.

How much does it cost for a newspaper/media in Uganda to accept a mistake it has made and apologize?  Does the press law in Uganda allow any Journalist to write anything about anybody without due investigation and then go on unquestioned?  How many rivers shall one cross to get an apology for libelous reporting from the media in Uganda?  Or is The New Vision newspaper above the law?

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