You wouldn’t have to be living under a rock to have missed what was going on in Uganda over the last two weeks. Major North American news outlets provided lackluster coverage in rather inconspicuous places, and it seems the largest networks now have bigger fish to fry jerks to gawk at. Admittedly, I’m a bit more closely tuned in to Ugandan news than the average American, but I’m no less interested in a concept we have in common with Uganda: free speech is supposed to be a cornerstone of both constitutional governments. Permit me this temporary departure from strictly artistic concerns in favor of a concern that many artists share.
Uganda is a tricky setting for examining this issue, because on the surface, major media appear to be reporting the facts. This seems to be the case even when police make outlandish claims about how many citizens can suddenly get a hold of illegal firearms (note: while it’s true that a small number of firearms were stolen from police stations, that doesn’t seem to add up as the sole cause for the total number of people injured and dead). Good thing that by Sunday, things appeared to be back to normal. President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni must have cleverly used that magic “combination of political might and political nuance to handle the situation” as his supporters put it (via Voice of Africa). It’s the ratio that’s really troubling; Museveni seems to lean more toward might all the time.
French intellectual Michel Foucault famously wrote in several different ways about the relationship between force and authority. For the purposes of examining the contemporary Ugandan situation, we can boil Foucault’s observation down to this: true and effective authority cannot rest on force, brute strength, or military power (the power over life and death) alone. Museveni apparently knows this, which is why he also makes every attempt to control something else Foucault wrote extensively about: the regime of truth.
Evidently Museveni thinks he will be able to control the flow of information to bolster his government during turbulent times. His supporters think along the same lines, making it hard to believe that every journalist held for any charge was held on Museveni’s orders. He may in some cases be an unwitting accomplice to his loyal followers power hungry police brigades who, while attempting to restore order to the streets of Kampala, have violated journalists’ constitutional rights. However, if current reports about the growing importance of citizen media or indeed the increasingly sophisticated commentary of the blogren are any indication of things to come, neither Museveni nor the police will be equipped to quell social unrest by controlling mass media outlets and the journalists who write for them. Dare I ask what their next steps would be?
Museveni is no fool. While for various reasons his government has not put a stop to an LRA conflict that remains rather distant from the capital and the state house, he has been in African politics long enough to know that there’s a difference between an extended bush war and an all-out civil war that plays out in urban violence. For now, an already war weary Uganda seems to be finding ways to keep the peace even at the cost of many of its independent news media. Museveni has played a role in making this a one-sided conversation during the past week, and perhaps people accept this on the surface as they draw on all too recent memories of the role that radio played in the Rwandan genocide of the mid 1990s. Citizen media, on the other hand, behave on their own terms. People can blog or microblog anonymously, and Ushahidi maps crises like this one outside the scope of any single government’s reach. Then again, I haven’t seen any tweets or blogs on these issues from those I follow on those media since about five days ago. Have things really calmed down that much, or are we seeing a new caution among the blogren borne out of fear, censorship, or both?