Interview | Javie Ssozi – Helping Ugandan voices reclaim the legacy of the LRA war

Think Africa Press recently published a very thorough, balanced and well-written analysis of the Kony2012 furore and what it means for humanitarian organisations and their future campaigns – read it in full here. There was one section that really got my attention,

Kony2012 was unrivalled in its spread as a viral campaign and, in the UK, donations to international aid NGOs have been rising. But at the same time, these same strategies are possibly undermining the cultivation of more concerted, long-term commitments. (Kony2012 itself did not even sustain interest long enough to mobilise action for its Cover the Night campaign the next month.)

While I broadly embrace the sentiment that, long-term, the ‘success’ of the campaign will be seen in an entirely different light I think that this point of view misses a very important part of the video’s audience – Ugandans.

The website was set up in the aftermath of Invisible Children’s campaign. As the Think Africa Press article points out, the film had very little Ugandan input, focusing much more on the IC director, Jason Russell. For obvious reasons, many Ugandans were incensed by having their narrative, their issue, taken off their hands and presented to the world as a problem that revolves around the actions of North Americans. The founders of UgandaSpeaks wanted to combat that.

I caught up with Javie Ssozi, one of the co-founders of the site, to get some more information on the project.

Javie Ssozi

UgandaSpeaks was prompted by the KONY2012 phenomenon, a topic which has garnered an unbelievable amount of attention as well as a huge backlash from the development blogosphere and Ugandan journalists and activists. What do you think UgandaSpeaks can add to this discussion?

What UgandaSpeaks adds to the topic is not only valid arguments about the subject but also voices of Ugandans who have more experience in the legacy of the war in the North.  

There seem to be quite a lot of people involved in founding the site: who are they and how did you all come together?

The people who are involved in UgandaSpeaks are:

  1. Javie Ssozi
  2. Rosebell Kagumire
  3. Maureen Agena
  4. Echwalu Edward
  5. Ole Tangen

All of these people have had experience covering news stories or doing social work in Northern Uganda where Joseph Kony and the LRA committed terrible atrocities.

Who is running things, day to day?

We all work as a team even though myself (Javie) does most of the work related to the website. 

How many submissions have you had so far? Are Ugandans excited about this initiative?

Yes, many Ugandan journalists, storytellers and social workers have strong interest in the initiative. In fact, many young people who have just started their careers in storytelling and journalism have asked to join the UgandaSpeaks team. Many other Ugandans have shown support through retweeting and sharing our stories on Facebook and other social networks. 

A lot of the people behind UgandaSpeaks a fairly well known journalists and activists – who will be overseeing the film production aspect of your project?

 Javie Ssozi and Maureen Agena oversaw the production of the film.

Recently, there has been something of a backlash (see here) against the rhetoric of ‘telling positive stories about Africa’ – does a project like UgandaSpeaks go beyond a marketing/advertising push? How?

Actually the approach that UgandaSpeaks takes is more personal story driven. Our narrative takes shape from the experience of the teller. For example we do want to tell positive stories about Africa but also we realize that people have challenges. So, we allow for people to show both sides of their stories. 

Is your aim to place Ugandan authored stories about Kony in the international press or the national press?

I think we have already done this. But our aim is to share the stories of the people who have first hand information about what happened in Northern Uganda. Eventually we shall cover stories about all sorts of people and things around Uganda depending on our budget. 

Who is your audience and why are they your audience?

Our Audience on the KONY2012 topic is mainly people from the west because they know so little about Uganda. We just want to educate them and perhaps in doing so we shall recapture the narrative that KONY2012 video puts across. 

Have you had any approaches by Ugandan political figures? If not, do you think they staying away from this topic because of pressures from international aid/development organisations?

Eventually the Prime Minister of Uganda (Amama Mbabazi) did two YouTube videos on the topic. I  think our government officials are not technically agile as we (UgandaSpeaks/ independent netizens) are but also I think they have to follow some kind of procedure.

How do you feel about aid/development? Does it have it’s place or is it time to replace it with large-scale trade initiatives?

Aid is good because in one way or another it ends up helping someone somewhere. However, aid is NOT sustainable. Promoting entrepreneurship and trade would be a more sustainable way of supporting people in the developing countries. 

Is there a middle ground in the aid vs trade debate?
Since (most of) the aid is always ending up in the hands of people who will either miss use it or embezzle it, I think trade would be the way to go. And there are already a number of initiatives promoting trade between Uganda and the rest of the world. I believe more of these initiative would bring the ultimate change we need – and perhaps one day we shall be like China! This country has the potential to supply 3% or even more than that of the world’s food.

Telling Positive Stories – The backlash

Also published by Generation C Magazine and Development in Action

Telling positive stories about Africa - The memo

Does anyone really understand the logic behind this PR campaign? [Created using]

A fair amount of hand-wringing has been going on lately regarding a narrative in aid/development that has been pretty prevalent for at least as long as I’ve been interested in it (around 5 years) – ‘telling positive stories about [Africa/Sub-saharan Africa/the developing world etc]’.

J. (previously of Tales From The Hood) recently posted this link on Aidsource before making the following points:

1) The aid industry has been getting advertising makeovers for, oh…. FORTY YEARS. It’s time to take off the makeup. Can we stop “advertising” and just “tell the truth” already?

2) Telling the public great stories about ‘what works’ is fine, I suppose. But the real messages that they seem to be missing are the ones about what DOESN’T work. (just sayin‘)

The article he was replying to – read it – highlights this position:

“Communication about development aid has long focused on making the case for its need,” says Tom Scott, director of global brand and innovation at the Gates Foundation. “There is a huge opportunity to talk about how it works and what it does – to tell the real success stories that exist.”

This was referenced in the discussion about this article on Aidsource as absolutely not being a new idea. I’d definitely have to agree with that one – since starting my first NGO comms job about 10 months ago I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard speakers at events or read articles by influential comms types telling us that ‘success stories’ are the main way forward. While I think there is a lot of use for this approach – the advocacy done by ONE on supporting better aid budgets for example – it is, first and foremost, an advocacy tool and one that might go some way to explaining how NGOs distort the issues and, in the long run, disappoint their public.

Elliot Ross over on Africa Is A Country also recently posted an article responding to a new campaign by Mama Africa aimed at combating ‘Hollywood stereotypes’ of African men (video below). While giving some praise to the work of this organisation he condemns the video for both being a little forced/not funny as well as tying into the idea of PR being the answer to the problems of Africa:

Sure, the Western media continues shamelessly to traffic in vicious stereotypes of black African masculinity drawn from the deep histories of racist iconography that remain at their disposal in spite of (more likely under the cover of) the general subscription to a rigid politically correct consensus. Yes, it would be nice if they would give this a rest once every few centuries.

But do we really need this kind of “positive image for Africa” stuff? At best it can be framed as a necessary corrective, but the whole PR “brand Africa” shtick is boring, patronising, and finally insubstantial in its attempt to transform the West’s time-honoured way of imagining the continent, ideas that are thoroughly tangled up with ingrained – and much beloved – supremacist notions of Euro-American culture and identity. This isn’t all going to go away because you pointed out that there’s a bloke in Nairobi called Brian who works in HR.

Here’s the video:

While these critiques are interesting and certainly worth thinking about, it strikes me that they are very much from a ‘development’ point of view. A rather brilliant article on Ugandan media site about police and government pressure on the way in which journalists report the news showcased a slightly different angle on why the ‘positive stories’ narrative could have negative consequences – it is worth quoting it at length (HT @Natabaalo):

[An anonymous police officer] says journalists should do what the police order them to do during demonstrations, after all “when journalists are injured by demonstrators, it is still the police to blame”.

But recent trends show journalists are more likely to be harmed by the police and other security agencies than by protesters. Especially since Walk to Work protests started in April last year, sections of the media have been singled out as “enemies of Uganda’s recovery” by President Yoweri Museveni.

For publishing pictures of opposition leaders and supporters being roughed up by security agencies, Museveni has argued that sectors like tourism and investments from abroad would be negatively affected. He has called for a different approach to reporting so that the media depicts a different side of Uganda – as a great investment destination and tourism hub.

This type of journalism, a lot of times misinterpreted as development journalism, is what is preached by most leaders in poor and transitional countries. Some have argued that in poor countries, the government of the day needs support. They add that the government in such a country will probably have to take decisions which are based on the common good but which harm individual liberties.

The idea that fair, free journalistic reporting could inhibit both Government and development aspirations is one that showcases a worrying marriage of convenience. Aid skeptics and jaded development workers have long supported oppressive regimes as a justified means-to-an-end – Kagame in Rwanda, Park Chung-hee in South Korea or China, in general, are oft-cited examples of ‘bad guys doing good things’ in terms of economic development. But this betrays a double standard – as outsiders looking to help, we cannot condemn one thing (i.e. civil liberties) for ourselves while condoning it for others without weakening our position.

While the idea of ‘telling positive stories’ might end up patronising Africans, it also might end up supporting those regimes that systematically undermine human rights, particularly those regarding the freedom of expression and the activities of the media. Without mechanisms of domestic accountability these governments are much more likely to revert back to being ‘bad guys who do bad things’. As an industry and as an international community, we cannot be complicit in that process. Particularly because you know that, once these governments do revert, our governments will condemn them publicly, only to be further undermined when it is pointed out that they had aided such leaders in attaining such a position.

And then the cycle continues. Or should I say ‘downwards spiral’?

Interview | Manika Jha – Nepali journalist & human rights defender

Manika Jha was in the UK with Peace Brigades International, who do great work protecting human rights defenders all over the place. They also sent me the background information at the end of the interview. Apologies for the stuttering nature of my questioning!

NB: I’m planning to greatly increase the amount of interviews I put up on here as I so often have questions about the humanitarian sector that irritate me sufficiently to warrant asking some people who know about such things – as I have done previously, to an extent. I’d like these interviews to be video-fied so as to strip away my all-to-unecessary editorial filter and perhaps produce something more useful than my limited interviewing skills currently elicit.

Anyhow, that’s all for the future so, you know, watch this space.

Source: Peace Brigades International

Manika Jha

CLICK HERE for audio interview

What issues do you cover in your journalism?

Mostly I cover issues like violence against women, domestic violence and the human rights situation [in Nepal]. Sometimes I also write about crime issues and corruption.

Are many other people covering issues like this?

Corruption and crime issues are covered by other journalists – male journalists also cover these. But women’s issues, women’s rights issues some other people also cover but not so much.

Why don’t many people cover women’s issues?

I’m from Taraji [a rural area of Nepal] and there it is a male dominated society. In most of the newspapers, the owner and the main person is male so mostly the women’s issues is not an issue they touch. They never cover it, mostly: sometimes, when a woman is raped or murdered they have to cover it. But basically they don’t write a lot about that.

Are the articles that you write seen as being controversial?


Why are they controversial?

I told you, the society is not so free. In our society the men think that women have no rights so when you read the issue that we have rights, when you fight about your rights, it’s controversial, always. When you write about the woman who is inside his house – she has a right. When you write about the woman who doesn’t want to sleep with her husband – she has rights. But when I write about that, for society, it’s controversial. Because the woman, she has to always sleep with her husband so these are very controversial issues.

Do you get any support from other media professionals?

I don’t have any support in the media. Yes, I am a board member for Federation of Nepali Journalists, also, but any kind of support I don’t feel because mostly they all are male and I am the only female board member so… But there are some international organisations who help me like Peace Brigades International, because of them I am in Europe and I’m talking to you now.

Just not domestically.


How about with the police?

In our society, I told you, everywhere it’s male. In the police, there are no women police in the high level. With me, I am a woman journalist and when I want to talk with them about a lot of issues, about women’s rights issues, they don’t want to speak to me because I’m a woman. Mostly, the situation of Nepal we are still in conflict, we are waiting for the constitution so talking to the police is not… they are not so related with civil society members, they do not want to talk a lot to journalists. We don’t have a good relation with police, that’s easy to say.

What changes would you like to see from your work?

Mostly I think in our society, women never read newspapers. They are not educated, they don’t know about their rights – what’s their rights, what’s women’s rights, what’s a human being’s rights? So I write for justice. I want to change the mindset of men that “women can’t do anything”. I want to prove that; that we can do, we have the capability, if you give us a chance then we can do something.

If someone’s interested in what you’re working on or where you’re working do you have any links for people who want to support your work?

From the international community we are always waiting for support. We are not looking for any type of economic support or anything like that but moral support, I think, is the best type of support for our job. I’m working in a very critical situation so if anyone wants to support me…. maybe I want their blessings and their moral support.

Background info:

Manika Jha is a 23 year old female journalist and human rights defender from Janakpur, Dhanusha district (bordering India). Dhanusha district is widely regarded as one of the most volatile regions of Nepal, where police corruption is rife and political party cadre and armed groups act with impunity. Dhanusha is also very conservative socially, particularly regarding the role of women in society.

Manika started working as a journalist in this context when she was 19 years old. Due to the dangers inherent in the work, and the need to work all hours and in traditionally ‘male’ spaces, she is currently the only female reporter in the district.  Manika has written for two daily national newspapers and focuses on exposing corruption and on women’s rights issues.

This is difficult and dangerous work and there are many who would like to see Manika silenced. In January 2009, Manika’s neighbour and co-female journalist Uma Singh was brutally murdered by a group of 15 unknown assailants. That same night a cross was drawn on Manika’s door and she was told she would be ‘next’. Over the past two years, Manika has received numerous verbal and written threats and has been attacked on at least three occasions, including an attempt on her life in May 2010.

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The story of the two Swedish journalists currently imprisoned in Ethiopia being charged with and found guilty of ‘supporting terrorism’ has been something of a success for those who want to draw attention to human rights abuses, gaining significant coverage in major news sources all over the world. Often, human rights issues and angles are a little dry because of how legally focused it is; with a few exceptions, lawyers aren’t often the most exciting writers in the world. This dryness makes it a little hard for the majority of a) the public and b) editors who want to make money to read or publish many of their stories.
Don't let classics geeks convince you he's exciting to read

Cicero - a wonderful lawyer, intellectual and theorist. Nevertheless, his prose is unlikely to fire you up.


Despite a paucity of evidence, the Ethiopian courts have upheld the country’s 2009 Anti-terrorism Law, leading to an 11 year sentence for  reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson, delivered on the 29th of December. The two Swedes were accused of aiding the opposition Ogaden National Liberation Front, deemed a terrorist organisation by the Ehtiopian government. Numerous human rights groups had previously warned about the law, claiming that it fails to stand up to international legal standards of freedom of expression – the anti-terrorism law is so broad it can be enacted against more or less anyone.

The BBC reported on their convictions,

“The men acknowledged during their trial that they had held talks with ONLF leaders in London and Nairobi, before entering Ethiopia from Somalia and meeting about 20 members of the group 40km (25 miles) from the border.

However, they say their contacts with the ONLF were intended to help them to get into a region the Ethiopian authorities will not allow journalists to enter.

They say they wanted to report on the activities of a Swedish oil company, Lundin Petroleum, in the Ogaden.”

Who’s talking about this?

1. Old media

The problems of the Horn of Africa region, particularly in the last 18 month, have been widely reported by the traditional media – from famine to political instability to war. The case of the two Swedish journalists doesn’t come out of left field and adds to a whole range of mainstay journalistic topics (unlike human rights). While Somalia was recently called the world’s “foremost failed state” by British Foreign Secretary William Hague – and its issues are not confined within its borders – the situation in Ethiopia has also worsened considerably. At the end of last month, Nicholas Kristoff used his column in the New York Times to draw attention to the abuses of Ethiopian President, Meles Zenawi, encouraging his 1.2 million Twitter followers to help him to track down the leader during the Davos conference,

“I want to ask him why he has driven more journalists into exile over the last decade than any other leader in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City. “

If there’s anything that gets serious journalists fired up, it’s people attacking, imprisoning or executing other journalists. Fair enough. But it also isn’t anything new.

2. Human rights activists

Human rights activist groups exist in a strange limbo. From my experience, they don’t really consider themselves wholly part of the development world or the legal world. Perhaps as a result of this lack of place, the large human rights groups (there are more than just Amnesty!) tend to have a strange relationship with the press and the general public. All too often, they rely on publishing large, printed reports that don’t see a lot of action outside of the human rights circles. This isn’t true across the board, of course, but I don’t think many people in human rights would argue that their output is particularly widely recieved in the general public.

Because it is both very specialised and competitive, the people who become experts in the field are necessarily going to think about, understand and discuss the issues in a highly focused and high-level way. The reason they got there is because they know a lot about a hard subject. This does not naturally translate to mass-market appeal.

3. New media

How many of you reading this recieve emails or tweets or facebook updates from organisations like Avaaz or I’d imagine it’s quite a few. Even if you don’t, the journalists who report in the newspapers you read definitely do.

This is the era of citizen journalism – the explosion of social media activists, bloggers and crowd mapping from previously unheard voices has been the media story of the last year. How many articles have you seen that quote ‘eye witness’ accounts from Twitter? Some media organisations have realised just how important social media can be to their reporting. At the end of last year, a mobile news site went as far as to sue a former employee for keeping the followers he had attracted whilst working for them.

Citizen journalists are galvanising the wider community and getting the attention of the mainstream media. They are also getting unprecedented numbers of people involved in activism – take a look at this infographic on SOPA blackout day for a recent example.

Making the difference

Most of us spend far too long on our phones and computers as it is. The way in which new media activists grab the attention of those of us idly refreshing our inboxes as well as journalists under pressure to find and write an exciting story is great. A major problem at this stage is the danger of cutting the sectoral experts – in this case, the human rights defenders – out of the process, but this is situation that all the involved parties have a hand in creating.

As long as it continues to get people to take action in a widespread way, no one is going to want to stop it. The people taking on these niche issues and spreading awareness and campaigns in a viral way need to utilise the input and expertise of more experienced activist groups to ensure their enthusiasm and networking skills are allied with the requisite knowledge to target campaigns at truly problematic and/or influential issues. Let the cooperation commence!

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