(Interview) “Uganda has some of the most vibrant press, not only in Africa, but the world” Julius Mucunguzi

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Julius Mucunguzi,36, is a Spokesperson for Africa at the Commonwealth Secretariat, an international intergovernmental body of 54 countries based in London. He is also responsible for managing communications and public affairs of the organization on economic, trade, investment, climate change and export promotion. Before joining the Commonwealth in 2006, Julius managed Communications for World Vision International in Uganda, taught journalism at the Department of Mass Communications and Makerere University, and before that, reported for The Monitor and New Vision newspapers in Uganda.

Why did you decide to study journalism?
While growing up, my ambition was to become a Primary school teacher of Social Studies and Geography. That was because we used to get “Student Teachers” from Teacher Training Colleges who would come to our school occasionally to do “Teaching Practice.” They were good, and I liked the “Title Student Teacher”. It sounded very exotic.  But then my focus changed while in A Levels at Kigezi High School where I met Dr Shaka Ssali of Voice of America and Andrew Mwenda of Independent. At Monitor, two journalists who  used to  expose ills in society, standing for  truth, providing a voice to the marginalized and vioiceless, and the opportunity to enter the corridors of power and ask tough questions to those wielding power—I changed my mind and worked towards joining journalism school.

What is that one exciting story you ever worked on and why?
Most exciting story? Well, let me see. I have written many interesting stories, but perhaps a piece I wrote around 1999 about a survey that was carried out by the Consumer Protection Association of Uganda about the quality of bread that was being sold in markets and streets in Kampala.

The survey looked at several benchmarks, including whether or not the packaging had expiry dates on them. But perhaps what struck me most was the fact that over 85 percent of the bread that was on the market was underweight. That is,a loaf of bread supposed to weigh one kilogram (1000 grams) would often be less in weight by up to 200grams! So, I wrote the news story with the headline ‘85 percent of bread on the market underweight’, survey reveals. A day later, on further reflection, I realized there was a bigger story. I asked myself what the cost of this shortfall to a family that buys a 1kg loaf of bread a day would be in a month and in a year. At the time, a 1kg loaf of bread cost Ush1000. So it meant generally, if this family was buying a loaf that was 200grammes less a day—the loss would be Shs 200 per day. In 30 days, it would amount to Shs 6000, and in a year, this would come to Shs 144,000! This was a huge amount then, equivalent to two terms school, fees for a secondary school student in a day school! I sat down and wrote that commentary and had it published in The Monitor under the headline: “You lose Shs 144,000 a year by buying underweight on the market!  A story that I thought was juts simple, became a subject of discussion on radio, television and drew many letters from angry consumers calling on the government to protect them from unscrupulous bread makers.
The Uganda Consumer Protection Association (UCPA) taunted my article as an example of good and empowering journalism. Culprit bread makers were named and shamed, and another survey carried out a few months later found that the percentage had fallen to 40 percent. I felt a sense of satisfaction that I had in humble way made a contribution to community enlightenment. The former director of UCPA Henry Kimera was to tell me as recently as two years ago, that he considered my piece as one of the best in advocacy journalism.

Do you think journalists’ work can change the world?
I believe good journalism can act as a fulcrum to oil the process of positive change in the world. Journalism alone can’t. It needs a host of other actors—civil society, law enforcement, a good education, etc. But definitely, good journalistic work can help make changes in the world.

What is your opinion on journalists who want money to write or cover a story. This seems to be the trend in Uganda?
It is wrong for journalists to demand money from sources to write a story about them. This compromises their credibility, both from the person they are seeking cash from, and to their inner souls. When a journalist demands money in order to write or influence the manner in which he writes the story, the source will just look and weigh you on the basis of the money he/she gave you.
You would never be taken serious. I know the pay for journalists in Uganda and a number of other developing countries is poor, but the solution is not for individual journalists to extract payments from sources. It requires greater injection of cash in media houses and properly running them as profitable business—and then paying well, “the cows that lay the golden eggs”—the journalists. Good, independent and credible journalistic work is profitable—both to the media house and to the individual journalist.

My advice to a journalist that currently feels that he/she is being paid peanut is: Keep doing and writing good stories. Don’t compromise the quality of your work, because you are paid less—because the reader does not know, or even care about how much you are paid. You are judged by the quality of the content carried by your byline—so, keep it credible. It will pay dividends, sooner, rather than later.

Again, I would like to know your thoughts on journalists who blackmail people with stories,. Is it ethical?
That is unethical and a total abuse of the special role and place of journalism in society. It is betrayal of the trust society bestows on journalism. It is abuse of the ‘power of journalism.’ It is not different from the vices of corruption and abuse of office that form the fodder of most journalistic work. It is wrong and criminal.

How did you come to work at the Commonwealth?
I applied for the job I am doing after reading an advert in The Economist while in Uganda. I remember the date. It was 6th February 2006. I was in office reading the magazine, and saw this job. I read the advert three times, and told myself this: ‘Julius,this is your job. It fits you, and you fit it’. Immediately, I typed out a cover letter, explaining why I believed I was the best placed person to be considered. I polished and updated my CV, included samples of some of the best pieces of my work—newspaper articles, reports I had produced, video documentaries I had directed, and chapters of books I had published. I put all these in an envelope and headed straight down to General Post Office on Kampala Road, and off—I sent them off to Human Resources Section at Pall Mall, London. About two months later on 3rd April 2006, I received a call from a lady in London asking if she was speaking to Julius Mucunguzi. I replied in the affirmative. She told me I had been shortlisted for an interview for the Communication Officer position and that I was required to travel to London for interviews. The Commonwealth arranged all the logistics—visa, air ticket and accommodation. On arriving in London, I found that I was competing for this job with a Briton, a Jamaican and a Trinidad and Tobagan.
We did the interviews over three days—including a written assignment, a group work and facing the panel—and at the end of the process—on the third day, I was called and informed that I was the successful candidate. That was it.

What would you advise Diasporans or Ugandans who would want to reach a position like yours, working at institutions like the Commonwealth Secretariat?
I am still on a journey. I am not there yet—but I can share a few tips which have worked for me. One: you have to believe in yourself and refuse to have the type of thinking that some jobs are meant for others, not you.

Two: it matters where you get your information from.
In other words, it matters what you read. If you read local newspapers, you will find local opportunities advertised there, if you read national publications, there will be national offers, if you read regional publications—it will be regional offers, and if you read international publications like The Economist, you are likely to find international opportunities.

Three, this idea that you must have a ‘godfather’ in an organization before you can apply or to be able to get a job is a ‘cancer’ that we must fight. It kills morale and destroys self confidence. Four, we must always strive to improve our skills and competencies—meaning, we have to hit and read those books. Five, when you get on a shortlist, give the interview your best. Do not leave anything to chance. Plan, prepare, rehearse—so that there is no room to say afterwards, that I wish I had done this or that.

What do you think about press freedom in Uganda?
I think Uganda has some of the most vibrant press, not only in Africa, but the world. The scope of freedom of the press in Uganda has been expanding over the years. But of course with freedom, comes responsibilities. Freedom without responsibility leads to anarchy—and no one wants anarchy. The fact that a number of laws on our statute books have been successfully challenged in the courts is a sign of good progress.

If you were the Minister of information in Uganda, what are the two things you would transform?
Tall order, but I think I would work to improve the coordination of information and messages from different government agencies to make them more coherent, and two, I would ensure that the public and media is better informed of both the successes and challenges of government  in dealing issues at hand in a transparent and respectful manner.

This would be aimed at ensuring that there is greater awareness, appreciation and support of government programmes. There is a lot of the untold potential of Uganda as an investment and tourism destination—for both Ugandans and foreigners.

Who inspires you?
I am inspired by hard working people who have made it through honest means. Dr Shaka Ssali and Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, the current minister of ICT in Uganda are some of them.

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