May 11, 2017
KAMPALA, UGANDA — Alvin Byarugaba, a boda boda cyclist living in the Kampala suburb Ntinda, says he found out that his uncle died in an accident on Masaka Road when a picture of the deceased appeared in a local tabloid.
“I was shocked,” says Byarugaba, 33. “Some of those tabloids keep the same paper on the street for [a] long [time]. Even when I was trying to recover, people would call and ask about the photo they saw in the front page of [local newspaper] Kamunye.”
Byarugaba says newspapers should be restricted from publishing photos of the deceased as they are not respectful of the dead or their relatives.
Most registered Ugandan media companies have guidelines that restrain publication of photos of the dead. But other individuals and media houses say a story is best told with pictures, and gory photos of those found bloodied in car accidents and murder scenes appear regularly despite government standards that go against the practice.
Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda
Uganda’s Communications Commission, a government body that regulates broadcasters, prohibits publishing or broadcasting images that would “seriously distress” the public. The Uganda Media Council, a separate government group charged with overseeing activities of all media companies, issued ethics guidelines in 2014 that prohibit “publication of grotesque and gruesome pictures, obscene publications, intrusion into grief or shock, protection of children, victims of sexual assault among others.”
However, some media outlets fail to comply and publish images seen as crossing this line.
Faiswal Kasirye, a photo editor with the Daily Monitor, a national newspaper, says journalism ethics disallow him or any credible newspaper from publishing photos of the dead.
“Our regulations don’t allow us to publish any pictures of the dead even with a little blood,” he says. “Tabloids can do anything. They don’t have strict editorial policies.”
Pius Mwinganisa, secretary of the Uganda Media Council, is taking one media outlet to court for violating the ethical standards and publishing a gruesome picture of the dead. He declined to name the company.
He said some media “never learnt evidence-based reporting and ethical professional conduct.”
Ben Byarabaha, news editor of the Red Pepper, a paper that publishes photos of the dead, justifies such actions as the best way to tell a story.
“When you want to tell a story about a catastrophe, it can’t be complete without a picture,” Byarabaha says.
But he says the caption on a photo is of utmost importance, not the picture.
“The message accompanying the picture is what is important. We don’t glorify the act. In our writing, we condemn it,” he says.
Byarabaha says his newspaper boasts that such photos help police enforce the law.
“We once published a photo of a dead girl. Her relatives identified her, and later realized she was an MP’s wife and the hubby had masterminded her shooting. Investigations went on and the husband was arrested; he is now serving 25 years in jail,” he says. Byarabaha was referring to a member of the Ugandan Parliament, whose sentence was upheld after an appeal before the Supreme Court.
Salaam Kaggwa, 23, a resident of Nansana, a town about 9.5 kilometers (5.8 miles) northwest of Kampala, says sometimes publishing photos of the dead can be a public service in that it could be helpful in providing evidence in court cases.
“Suppose someone dies by hanging and there is a need for evidence? Taking photos of such a death might help provide evidence,” he says.
Pamela Ankunda, head of public and international relations for the Uganda Communications Commission, says all broadcast companies should follow basic standards published June 27, 2016.
Section 6 of the news, current affairs and other factual programs standards states: “Broadcasters shall ensure that morbid, sensational or alarming details not essential to factual reporting are avoided. Images that may seriously distress or offend like dead bodies should only be displayed in clear public interest.”
Ankunda also says the broadcasters must not undermine public security and confidence with gruesome pictures. “We need to respect the dead,” she says. “We have minimum requirements we expect every broadcaster to observe.”
But the Uganda Communications Commission has so far not penalized any of the publishers and broadcasters that have failed to observe minimum standards, Ankunda says. It has made efforts to speak to broadcasters and publishers that have published photos of the dead, she says, and most have complied.
“We talked to these media houses and some responded positively,” she says. “We don’t believe in naming and shaming. Our act only allows us to suspend or revoke license after serious repeated breach. It has not got to that.”
Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda
Kasirye, the photo editor, would rather all publications balance between making money and meeting viewer needs in a professional manner.
“They have to … make money but also give clients content that suits them,” he says.
Mwinganisa, of the Uganda Media Council, says that his department has started and will continue to train journalists and editors on professional conduct.
“We are developing a training manual with UNDP to guide as we train these journalists throughout the country. We trained 23 trainers last year and 74 journalists. This is continuous,” he says, referring to the United Nations Development Programme.
In any case, the debate continues. Some, like boda boda cyclist Byarugaba, say media houses should have their licenses withdrawn for publishing pictures of the dead.
“They traumatize,” he says. “They should have their license taken away or be suspended so that they can learn.”
Yet others like Kaggwa say there’s nothing wrong with publishing these photos of the dead.
“They should publish them. I don’t see any problem,” he says.
The Red Pepper’s editor, Byarabaha, believes such photos are in the public’s interest.
“If such photos were not published, some criminals would walk away with impunity. Some dead bodies would be dumped in public cemeteries,” he says.
Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ reporter, translated some interviews from Luganda.