By Carol Azungi Dralega
IT had been almost 20 years since I worked in the busy newsroom of Uganda's leading daily, the New Vision Corporation. That was way back in 2000, before I went for further studies in Norway and changed my professional trajectory. So, when, this March, I was asked by my colleague Dr. Terje Skjerdal, to join in solidarity, the UNESCO organised World Press Freedom Day celebrtions in Addis Ababa as an academic mentor, I was justifiably nervous and apprehensive.
Memories of a heated, noisy and open newsroom, bustling with news producers: reporters, editors, photojournalists, freelancers, visitors and complainants came streaming in. Thinking about the long days and late nights often punctuated with urgent calls in the wee hours of the night to get back to the newsroom to cover breaking news, gave me the shivers.
It was a restless job, where one's ears were always on the ground, where whatever you ate, drank, saw, felt or even dreamt had to have a journalistic interpretation. We were nosy and alert by habit. As a journalist working for the leading daily, the ever-present understanding was that: It was easier to get to the top but very hard to stay there - as all the others worked knuckle-hard towards beating (and embarassing) us with news scoops, interesting angles and better sales. Also, it was not uncommon to be assaulted, intimidated, even relocated by one's editor due to threats by offended subjects of ones work, as I also experienced as a journalist.
But that is not all. Back in 2000 when I was a sub-editor on the New Vision Sports desk, we were at the dawn of the technological disruption - Infact, our desk lead by Louis Jadwong, pioneered the transition from analog to digital. Several intermediary jobs such as typesetters, proof-readers, etc were on their way out. Media convergence and multimedia platforms were budding to what today is a well established conglomerate (New Vision employs thousands through about: 7 newspapers, 5 radio stations, 4 TV stations, several magazines and other services). I wondered about how it was going to be, working in a multimedia newsroom?
Anyway, soon my apprehension to join the Addis Youth Newsroom, was slowly replaced with a strange sense of excitement and adventure - a promise of a fast-paced, adrenalin pumped experience. But mostly, I looked forward to working in a multi-cultural and multi-platform newsroom. With academics, young practicing journalists, students and others. I looked forward to learning from and sharing (mentoring) my knowledge with the young people in this era of technologically emmensed journalism.
From the onset, I understood from the UNESCO coordinators especially Soraide Rosario, that it was desirable to foster inclusive, transparent and effective processes around the Youth Newsroom. The aim was to open spaces and opportunities for young journalism students to not only experience a 'global newsroom' but most importantly gain access, insights and practice in covering mainstream issues around global press freedom while highlighting minority concerns, thematic varieties and national level nuances and perspectives from around the world.
Through the UNESCO WPFD Youth newsroom, they had the gateway to a plethora of participants from; government representatives, to journalists, to academics, legislators, judiciary members, religious organizations, civil society organisations and more. All of whom were here in solidarity to: celebrate and remind ourselves about the fundamental principles of Freedom of the Press; assess the status of freedom of the press around the world; defend press freedom and honour and pay tribute to journalists who have been killed, arrested and abused for doing their work. Thanks to the Ethiopian government, UNESCO and African Union for the support, about 2000 particiants graced the conference whose theme was: Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation”.
Well, my YT newsroom experience was far from the cut-throat experiences from the NV. It was relaxed, pleasant and professional. In fact, my task of allocating and editing the young journalists' stories offered me a broad range of insights. Thematically, from obtaining a deeper understanding of the role of cartoonists in promoting peace, to understanding the pros and consequences of critical journalism - as shown from the story of the UNESCO Guillermo Award winners. I gained fresh insights into the double victimhood that female journalists face as well as some of the dangers of disinformation especially with the proliferation of ICTs. I also leant something new and worrisom regarding the problem of impunity for the abuses of journalists' fundamental human rights. Just as an example, on the very day of the WPFD, Ugandan regulator Uganda Communications Commission ordered the suspension of editors of broadcasters for their critical coverage of a budding opposition leader.
The lessons are inexhaustable.
Practically, i was humbled by the brave, pleasant, eager, driven and hard-working young journalists and the fact that I was honoured to work with them and the others on this team. The Youth Times, allowed me to experience the current prerequisite for 'multi-skilled' newsroom workers in this era of technological ubiquity and 24/7 news production. In other words, journalists today must be proficient in taking photos, videos, writing a great story and have a presence on social media - all within the news day.
Culturally, i witnessed the importance of being flexible to cultural influences, backgrounds and practices especially in such a multicultural context. Lucky for me, my colleagues were some of the best people one can work with: relaxed, friendly, professional and inclusive.
If I were to share a few lessons with prospective WPFD Youth Newsroom students and mentors, These would be some of them:
For young journalists/students:
- Embrace and exploit the opportunity
- Put the theory into practice
- Be (pro)active and creative in your pursuit of stories
- Ask the tough and critical questions when newsgathering
- Do your homework/reasearch to support your articles. Verify for accuracy, fairness and balance especially in this era of disinformation.
- Build networks (of friends and future sources).
- Prepare to adapt to and reflect multicultural influences, backgrounds and contexts
- Enjoy the experience!
For the prospective mentors/editors:
- Prepare for multicultural influences and experiences: Prepare to adapt to and work with different cultures and for multicultural influences and backgrounds both from the teams and content.
- Start early: Endevour to work with the team to Start early - especially orientations to the location, platform orientation and job specifications.
- Clear communication: It help to have an overview, clarity in assigning duties and constant communication not just with teammates but also reporters.
- Enjoy the experience: this is not a knuckle-hard newsroom, so do your best, inspire the youth, help them produce their 'best works', pat them on the back with each delivery, attend some of the events, network, be you - but mostly, enjoy the event and contribute to a thriving atmosphere.
Many thanks to UNESCO, UAA and NLA Univerity College and all partners for enabling me to have this positive experience.