Do horrifying images of dead bodies in Ugandan media serve any purpose?

This month, Makerere University Department of Mass Communication celebrated their 20th anniversary. One of the events was a media symposium which I attended and found interesting. The theme of the symposium was professionalizing the media in Uganda. I didn’t write anything about it but after spending a week in my village I feel obliged to write something.

At this event the main speakers included Barbra Kaija, the deputy Editor in-Chief of The New Vision. One issue raised by some of those who attended remained unanswered. There was a concern as to why the media in Uganda was consistently insensitive in publication of images of the dead. The person specifically pointed out Bukedde, a Luganda sister paper to the New Vision.

I must say I have always wondered why great editors would forego the tenets of journalism to publish abhorrent images of the dead, be it those involved in an accident or those in homicides.

I appreciate that the media has a duty to inform or even bring horrible acts to the attention of both the public and policy makers but I also expect the media to respect the dead and their relatives. I write this because as a journalist I believe in being sensitive but also as a Ugandan who has come to know some people who have lost relatives and the horrible images are published. It might be years after the local daily published these images but they remain vivid in the relatives’ minds.

Back at the symposium, Kaija unsuccessfully tried to defend the Bukedde policy of publishing dead bodies, saying that the paper was meant for a Baganda audience and that in the Buganda culture it was okay to view dead bodies. This reason was shredded by the Baganda and those well versed with culture at the event.  Kaija opted for the easy way out by telling the gathering she was only responsible for The New Vision and that she was not the right person to seek answers from.

After that the discussion stopped but this week I found the same discussion in my village in Bushenyi. Just like any other village across the country, in my village over 20 people share the day’s paper. I arrived late in the evening carrying Daily Monitor and New Vision, papers that most people rarely read because of the cost and access issues.

I found some three old men whom I have known since I was little to be keen on current affairs and for years their main source has been Orumuri, a Runyankole sister paper to the New Vision. The men wanted to peruse through the English dailies I brought. Then the discussion started on what was in the Orumuri of the day. The first page was full of some dead person and these men were not amused by the continued publication of such pictures in their favourite paper. They know me to be a journalist so they asked why their paper had changed to this and I told them I shared their concern but had no idea why this was being done. Just like Bukedde, Orumuri has been transformed and it now carries pictures of children hacked to death in disturbing close ups that you don’t want to give the picture a second look. When I reached home my aunt raised the same concern about the pictures in Orumuri.

While appreciate that the media should continue to cover these murders in the country, I think news managers must be more responsible and sensitive to readers especially relatives of those in the pictures they choose to use. The media should stop being another pain to those who have lost their relatives in such gruesome ways. I don’t understand what exceptional role these pictures play in bringing the story to the attention of the readers. The headlines are screamers themselves. The government has been keen on the media only if it is critical of their policies. It seems there’s not much being done to see that the press doesn’t treat the public like the dustbin, whether it is internally or by bodies responsible. What makes people’s concerns even more worth considering is the fact that our government has shares in the Vision Group. I know the editors at these papers know better than presenting these horrible pictures in the way they do but I can’t comprehend why they continue doing so.

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