By Patty Huston-Holm with Israel Kisakye, Vanessa Kyalimpa and Yasiri J. Kasango
In mid-May 2021, Cecilia Okoth broke a story about how health care workers were charging money for the government’s free vaccination against Covid-19. The next month, she wrote about hospital patient expenses, treatment, and lax safety regulations regarding coronavirus.
Expose’ stories like these in the height of the pandemic are nothing new to this New Vision investigative reporter. In 2018, she uncovered a scam involving cancer patients and wrote about a possible solution to the stigma of HIV-AIDS in men. In 2019, she reported about “brokers” who lure public hospital patients to private facilities and how Karimojong girls were trafficked, with some ending up with the Al-Shabaab terrorist group.
These are only a few of the investigative journalism pieces authored by Okoth, a 2010 graduate of Uganda Christian University (UCU) and a speaker for a March 2022 event focused on engaging more women in deep, fact-finding news stories. The occasion was co-sponsored by the UCU School of Journalism, Media and Communication (JMC) and the Kampala-based African Institute of Investigative Journalism (AIIJ) with the nonprofit, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), in Nkoyoyo Hall of the UCU Mukono campus.
The School of JMC and AIIJ have a new Memorandum of Understanding that seeks collaboration in research and training of investigative journalists in the country.
“We are doing a lot of research in areas for journalism within Uganda and we think that UCU offers us that margin, but also think that UCU would love a space where they take their students for internships and could benefit from the guest lectures that we’ll have,” said Raymond Mujuni, of AIIJ and an editor and talk-show host at the Nation Media Group in Uganda.
Before an audience of 100, Okoth served on panel of journalists and media scholars who discussed press issues under the theme “Women and Investigative Journalism: An untapped opportunity.” Other panelists were Dr Patricia Litho, a communications specialist and trainer; Dr. Annette Kezaabu, the Head of Postgraduate Studies at the UCU School of JMC; and Anna Reismann, the country representative KAS Uganda and South Sudan. Mujuni moderated the discussion.
“In our early time of investigative journalism, we didn’t have such training to equip the young female journalists,” Okoth said at the event. Later, she shared how, as her career seemed to be stagnant, she stumbled on a deeper story she saw at a routine press conference.
“When I arrived, I immediately noticed an anomaly,” she recalled of the press event. “Many patients were lying on the verandas at the institute. I later learned that patients had to bribe medics to access the radiotherapy machine which was known to be free of charge. That was the story I wrote after a three-month investigation. My career has never been the same.”
In an interview after the March 2022 event, Okoth shared her thoughts about challenges and opportunities, especially for women. Investigative journalism is tough enough, but tougher for women as the difficult assignments often go to men.
“The onus is on a woman to fight and prove that you can equally accomplish a ‘man’s’ task,” she said. “Investigative journalism involves unearthing well-tucked secrets by the powers that be or highlighting the injustices and abuses of power. It is giving a voice to the voiceless. However, in trying to accomplish this, you will rub some people the wrong way or even get frustrated along the way, or face threats.”
Investigative pieces require time, patience and stamina for the reporter, and a budget for a newsroom – all four of which can compromise the quality of the work, according to Okoth. The content of the investigations can be “very disturbing” psychologically with risks from perpetrators reporters are researching to expose wrongful deeds.
“As journalists, we are told that no story is worth your life,” she said. “So, you have to know when to retract when an assignment gets dangerous.”
At the same time, deeper fact-finding stories provide opportunities not only to clear up corruption but also to gain recognition as reporters. Okoth has received accolades, such as the August 2018 editorial innovations award, 2019 runner up in the Uganda National Journalism Awards explanatory reporting category, and 2020 Nominee for the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) Knight International Journalism Awards. She also has had several training and mentorship opportunities globally.
“As a field journalist, I have seized the opportunity to transform the lives of people I have been assigned to report about,” Okoth said. “The stories I have covered have helped start uncomfortable conversations that have created awareness or led to policy change.”
Another panelist, Dr. Kezaabu, implored lecturers to mentor their students on life skills, adding that “the skills taught in class can be compromised if we don’t teach or mentor our students on how to focus on their life and conduct themselves.”
“Go for it if it’s your passion, if it’s your conviction, go for it,” added panelist, Dr. Litho, encouraging upcoming female journalists to break the bias. She added that ladies should not be relegated to soft stories like beauty contests.
“As journalists, we are often told, you are as good as your last story so that technically means your best story is one that you have not yet done,” Okoth, mother of a 16-month-old son, said. “This pushes me to work harder…Plus, being a mother shouldn’t deprive someone of career goals. You can definitely achieve both.”
In addition to hearing speakers, attendees watched a documentary film known as a Thousand Cuts about the life of Maria Ressa, a female investigative journalist who put her life at stake to hold the Philippine President accountable for killing innocent people under the disguise of drug abuse.
The March activities were attended by UCU Vice Chancellor, Assoc. Prof. Aaron Mushenygezi; Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academics, Assoc. Prof. John Kitayimbwa; Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Finance and Administration), David Mugawe; Dean for the School JMC, Prof. Monica Chibita; head of the School of JMC undergraduate studies, John Semakula; and AIIJ executive director Solomon Serwanjja.