Instead of being at the receiving end, President Yoweri Museveni and his fellow leaders from Tanzania, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe fired questions at the representatives of African media houses.
“Why are journalists always interested in telling bad stories about Africa as if there were no good stories to write about the continent?” asked Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete.
“By painting the bad image of the continent you stop the good story from being told.”
Daily Monitor’s Charles Mpagi said the role of the media was not to tell the excellencies how well their suits fitted but to bring out the ugly truths.
He pointed at the fact that most countries had better infrastructure and health services during the colonial times than today.
“Like President Museveni has said before, how could the colonialists build railways using buckets and forced labour, and we are not able to when we have earth-moving equipment?”
Museveni accused the media of specialising in “telling lies and writing about things they don’t know”.
Countering Mpagi’s statement, he noted that his sister, Dr. Violet Kajubiri, got polio in 1955 while his government has almost eradicated the disease.
“That young man said he was not there (during colonial days) but he heard. Why the lies? Or do you fear to be confronted with facts?” Museveni asked.
When Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe raised his hand, prolonged applause filled the hall. Mugabe once again seized the opportunity to attack the Western media, which have criticised his handling of the economy and his political opponents.
“There are agencies like BBC, CNN. When you act as agents (correspondents) of those kinds of media, do you have the option of being impartial?” he asked.
“If they are pursuing a hostile attitude, do you protect the interests of Africa because you are Africans? Can you report truthfully or factually or do you fear losing your jobs.” He urged African journalists not to serve neo-colonialist or imperialist interests.
A journalist from Swaziland replied that every media house has an editorial policy. Professional journalists cannot divert from this policy unless the situation goes against prescribed media ethics.
Ahmed Kateregga of Bukedde noted that when Africa was getting bad publicity, information ministers met in Kampala in 1978 and resolved to form the Pan Africa News Agency, which is now dormant. He said even the national news agencies disappeared with privatisation.
King Mswati III of Swaziland wondered why the media do not cover the positive projects happening on the continent.
To which Stephen Asiimwe of the East Africa Business Week replied that the media report a lot of good things about Africa but they are not appreciated. Instead, he said, the media are reprimanded for the critical articles.
Zimbabwe’s deputy prime minister Tokozani Khupe asked bluntly why media reports are always “lopsided”. In response, Charlotte Ampaire of the Uganda Media Centre said the media are a two-way street and governments needed to be more open and accessible. She referred to the UPDF which, as part of its plan to professionalise, created spokespersons who give prompt responses to media inquiries.
“You need to supply information to the media. Don’t treat them as adversaries but friends, they will be good to you,” she argued.
boss and moderator Robert Kabushenga wound up the debate by informing the leaders that the journalists would be sharper in the next session, adding that while answering, they were mindful of respecting the presidents.
Later in the day, Museveni declared part of Speke Resort Munyonyo a peace hub, where warring factions could meet and find a peaceful solution to their conflicts. Museveni invited those in the crisis-hit Darfur region of Sudan to come for talks.
The President made the remarks after he and his counterparts officially launched the peace centre and committed themselves to non-aggression towards each other.
Museveni, together with the leaders of Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Swaziland, as well as former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and former Botswana President Sir Ketumile Masire, drew wooden spears and pierced the ground to mark their commitment.
“I want to declare this place a peace shrine,” Museveni said. “It can be used by the warring parties in Darfur even if they are not on our side politically. I hope the ICC will not ask us to arrest some people because they will be on neutral ground.”
Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir did not attend the conference after the ICC asked Uganda to arrest the indicted leader over war crimes in Darfur.