This is a review of October 2010 Freethinkers’ Night:

Last Thursday we gathered at 4 Points Bar & Restaurant to discuss the media’s reporting of witchcraft stories. Our concern was (and still is) that the local media tended not to take a skeptical-enough approach to stories pertaining to witchcraft, and by so doing helping to lend credence to the notion that witchcraft is efficacious in some way or that it actually works (yet it does not).

The evening began with a screening of some of the videos showcased during the March 2010 Freethinkers’ Night. They were useful in getting people to see how seemingly magical things could be done using the art of illusion, misdirection and trickery.

Besides the usual crowd that normally attends Freethinkers’ Night, and several new faces, only a handful of news people actually showed up to see what the event was about. Radio journalists from Sanyu FM, Capital FM, Radio One, were in attendance. The local BBC correspondent was there too. Sadly, no newspaper or TV journalists or editors were able to make it. Still, we managed to engage in a spirited debate with those that were present.

Some of the main issues raised included:

  • Radio journalists said they feel content to report on a story as they hear it, and prefer to leave it to the discretion of the listeners on whether or not to accept the testimonies of interviewed witnesses/bystanders. They claim they are simply reporting ‘what people are saying’ – and they feel that their mandate need not necessarily extend beyond this. (They were fiercely challenged on this point. Many felt that the journalists’ mandate DID require them to be responsible and try to establish the truth of the story to the highest degree possible)
  • The Ugandan scientific community is notoriously media shy, and its members are often reluctant to participate in news interviews.
  • Most stories pertaining to witchcraft are filed by underpaid reporters, who do not feel motivated to file a thoroughly researched story.
  • They also don’t have sufficient means to carry out a thorough investigation. Most radio stations allocate very little by way of resources to their news departments. It is therefore difficult for them to contact experts, or travel to their offices to speak with them.

Some suggestions came up during the meeting as to how best we can remedy this seemingly dire situation:

For example, should we (Freethought Kampala) come across a story in the media that we feel did not adequately present the facts, we could alert them of this, and if it so happened that we had looked into that matter ourselves, we could send them our information (and the sources of that information), and they would include these clarifications in their consequent bulletins. This approach can be looked at as a kind of strategic partnership.

The other way forward suggested by some of the FK members is publicly criticising the media house responsible for publishing or airing an inadequately researched story pertaining to witchcraft. Such criticisms may be done online (such as on this blog) or better still, in form of a letter or article in the newspapers. The rationale comes by way of the following interesting comparison… just like it is the media’s job to hold public servants/the government accountable, it is we (the public) who need to hold the media accountable. In this case, it is we, the skeptics, who need to hold the media accountable on their reporting of stories pertaining to witchcraft. Ideally, in wishing to maintain the reputation of being credible (and not be embarrassed by a public response such as this), media houses will, in future, consider it to be in their best interest to broadcast or publish only well-researched news reports that feature allegations of witchcraft.

For now we shall be pursuing both options. The above approaches are likely to prove useful in engaging with TV and newspaper journalists as well, since, from what we were told by the radio journalists, the issues raised were universally applicable.

By the way, thanks to UBC TV for inviting me on Thursday afternoon (on the day of the event) to discuss the topic for the October 2010 Freethinkers’ Night, right after the one o’clock news. It was very nice of them – we had 10 whole minutes of critical thinking on the issue of witchcraft (and faith healing) broadcast to the whole country as a result!

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