Seeing Wrongdoing and Injustice, Ugandan Journalist Uses Reporting for Change

When asked how she made her breakthrough in investigative journalism, Cecilia Okoth says it came down to having a curious mind.

Assigned to cover a media briefing at a cancer treatment center in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, the reporter was intrigued by the patients waiting on the building’s veranda.

Many had traveled from across Uganda for treatment that is supposed to be free. But when Okoth spoke with the patients, she heard stories of irregularities in the care, with some patients saying doctors had asked them for bribes.

Because of her inquisitive nature, Okoth said, that “debut story became my main sort of breakthrough.”

Okoth went undercover to look into the allegations raised by patients. When her story was finally published by Uganda’s New Vision media group in August 2018, it made waves.

“Parliament acknowledged the article, and many people were able to share their experiences on social media about how they had been harassed by the same medical doctors that I caught on camera,” she told VOA. “That alone gives me the satisfaction that I was able to do something different for society.”

In more recent years, Okoth has reported on issues affecting children and young people — a focus that led her in 2023 to join the communications team at the charity ChildFund in Uganda.

She cites another of her investigative pieces as a turning point. It was 2019, and Okoth was in the Kenyan capital for a conference on child protection.

“We took a break to go and see what Nairobi was like. And then I noticed young girls from a particular ethnic tribe,” she said. “I was so curious.”

The reporter found that girls from Napak district in northern Uganda, some as young as 10, were being taken to Nairobi on the promise of school or work.

“But it was child trafficking. And most of these girls ended up being sexually abused,” she said.

As well as reporting on the case, Okoth was able to help rescue nearly 300 girls.

“[They] were brought back and taken to facilities for sort of rehabilitation … trying to get them to do things and learn skills,” she said.

For Okoth, “[It’s] not just about exposing the wrongdoing but being a story that will even wake up the government to say, ‘We didn’t know this is where our girls were ending up.’

“We must do a lot about looking at government solutions, and then journalists — the fourth estate and the voice for the voiceless — can change the narrative,” she said.

Fellow Ugandan journalist Solomon Serwanjja shares a similar view. In an interview with VOA last month, he said reporters can help bring change.

“Everyone talks about changing the world. But changing the world requires that we do something,” he said.

Doctors save lives, lawyers defend the weak, politicians pass good laws, said Serwanjja. “And fighting for freedoms is changing the world as an investigative journalist,” he said.

As journalists, “when we see something is going wrong, we have the platforms, we have the audience, we have the equipment, we have the knowledge, we have the skills to do something about it,” Serwanjja said.

But looking into corruption and wrongdoing can bring risks in Uganda. Human Rights Watch, in its World Report published in January, noted that authorities in Kampala often fail to hold security forces accountable for human rights violations, including restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. The report found that journalists are also “routinely harassed and intimidated.”

Media rights organizations, including Reporters Without Borders, have also cited challenges for media, including attacks, kidnappings, and threats for those who report on influential figures.

But when asked about the risks she and others in Uganda face, Okoth said, “Tell me any profession that has no risks. If there’s something wrong, there must be someone to start that talk,” she said.

And the reward from bringing important issues to light keeps Okoth going.

“My journey in investigative journalism has paid off because I have been focusing on issues with children. The injustices and providing proper and workable solutions,” she said.

It is that interest that led Okoth to take a position at ChildFund.

She sees the work as a continuation of her reporting career, saying, “I wouldn’t have gotten there if I didn’t do these stories that expose the wrongdoings … it has enabled me to embark on a career that will help me continue my passion for children.”

Okoth would like to see more newsrooms encouraging female reporters to take on complex stories.

When she started in journalism, she didn’t think she would be qualified for investigative reporting.

“I often looked at it as something that was [reserved] for the seniors in the newsroom, and being a female was even worse because we know that investigative journalism is usually a bit complicated in safeguarding yourself,” Okoth said.

“The newsroom, like some organizations, is primarily male-dominated,” she said. “It is high time for editors to deliberately encourage their [female reporters] to go for these stories.”

Source: VOA

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