Conflicting Media Coverage of the Mbarara Protests

On Saturday, a friend and I unwittingly ran into violent clashes in Mbarara between protesters and the police. This weekend’s Monitor and New Vision reveal how differently the rival media outlets report on political events. As the government-owned media house, the New Vision has a very unique perspective on how the events unfolded. Although independent, the Daily Monitor has a slant as well.

The Daily Monitor‘s Mbarara office is less than a block from where policemen fired teargas and bullets to disperse the crowd. The Monitor therefore published the first story on the events, which claimed that Besigye was stopped by the police in Mbarara, who refused to let him pass through the city:

For more than two hours Mbarara High Street echoed with crack of gun and tear gas as regular and military police battled hundreds of Forum for Democratic Change supporters who came to rescue Dr Kizza Besigye after he had been besieged by security agencies in an attempt to block him from travelling to Kabale.

Rescuing Dr. Besigye…that’s pretty rousing stuff.

Immediately people surged to the area chanting “leave doctor alone.” Police then fired tear gas to scare away the increasing number of supporters. But this instead rallied more supporters who mobbed Dr Besigye’s car.

I didn’t hear these chants myself, but I did see people flashing the double “v” sign of the opposition. Most of the protesters were Besigye supporters and people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dr Besigye remained in his car. He decided not proceed saying he was uncertain what lays ahead in his journey. He also questioned police why they had blocked him. After about an hour of cat and mouth spectacle military police was deployed. It ran across the streets beating people and firing bullets. Two Mambas roamed the streets.

I’m not sure what a “cat and mouth spectacle” entails, but it sounds like Besigye might also have had a choice in staying at the city center. Let’s take a look at the first account from the New Vision, “Besigye supporters clash with police, military“:

Three police officers sustained multiples injuries in a fiery physical exchange that involved supporters of the FDC president on one side, and police and military personnel on the other in Mbarara town on Saturday.

Canisters of the pungent tear gas were shot in the air, accompanied by ammunition as the security officials tried to disperse the crowds in the town’s centre.

The headline and first two paragraphs of this article make it sound like the protesters were on equal footing with the military and police. The story reports the injuries of the police officers, but it fails to mention if any protesters were hurt. And even though the police were the ones doing the shooting, the article clearly specifies that they were just firing “ammunition” and “pungent tear gas…in the air.”

Business came to a near-standstill as the air was filled with tear gas coupled with the chilling recurrent sounds of ammunition.

Cautious pedestrians ducked for cover as frightened shop owners and attendants shut down their business units.

When the situation overwhelmed the police, military back-up from Makenke army barracks was called in.

The move appeared to have worked as the biggest portion of the crowds was sent scampering for safety.

Somehow, the journalist, Fred Turyakira (or his editors twisting his words), makes it sound like the police and military are detached from the ammunition and tear gas being fired in the streets. No one seems responsible for the “chilling recurrent sounds of ammunition.”

He also seems to celebrate the arrival of the military who sent the crowd “scampering for safety.” From the police perspective, this move might have “worked,” but as someone who was scampering for safety as the military fired semi-automatic weapons in the streets, I can say with certainty that no one enjoys being shot at. I feel for the three police officers who sustained injuries, but why didn’t the New Vision report on any civilian injuries? Based on the damage I witnessed after the upheaval, I am almost certain that there were some.

I think there are two words to describe this kind of coverage: poor reporting. In today’s New Vision article, “Police denies blocking Besigye in Mbarara,” it seems clear that the journalist did no reporting at all–he simply published a press release from the Ugandan police. The article’s only source is Deputy Police Spokesperson Vincent Ssekate, who dutifully portrays the police as heroes who saved Mbarara from chaos and disorder:

The Police were necessitated to act so as to restore order in the affected areas by the agitated Besigye supporters. The Police dispersed the charged crowds using reasonable force and he was escorted up to Rugando towards Ntungamo.

I think this highlights an interesting disparity between the Daily Monitor and New Vision. Although I have been reading and comparing both publications for two months now, I have never seen this clear of a contrast between them. I am friends with some of the reporters and editors on the New Vision team and I normally admire their work, but these two articles seem to distort the facts. I know the Daily Monitor might also portray information to promote its political position, but at least its journalists incorporated multiple sources with a variety of perspectives. To me, the two articles from New Vision look like thinly veiled propaganda, but let me know if you think differently. As a media critic, I always welcome discussion and debate.


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