By Jesse Johnson James
In Uganda, lockdowns and other movement restrictions meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease hampered the work of many field journalists.
Whereas journalists were considered among essential workers during the restriction times like lockdowns, the reduced working hours due to curfews that have been maintained at 7pm for more than a year and a half, limits many who use public means of transport. Boda boda or motorcycle taxis that most journalists use as their means of transport in Northern Uganda are limited to moving from 5:30am to 6pm. This does not favor those who work longer hours to complete the evening and early morning news bulletins.
Ms Agnes Aromo, a freelance journalist with Radio Pacis in Gulu says her earnings have reduced since the restrictions on movement were imposed. During the lockdown, Ms Aromo would walk from home to work and this cost her a lot of time.
“In a day we moved for almost twenty kilometers. You go back home when you are very tired and you cannot do anything.” Ms Aromo says adding that; “ (Before curfew) I would leave home at 7am but I had to change to 5:30am because I had to come to the station and work on stories I had gathered the previous day. Then at 9am, I go again to the field to look for other stories. During the weekend, I work on at least three stories for both Luo and English.”
In Northern Uganda, most radio freelance journalists are paid about Shs3,000 to Shs5,000 (Less than a dollar or a dollar and a half) per story aired. Those who do future stories are paid between Shs15,000 (about $4) to Shs30,000 (about $8) depending on the length and quality of the future aired.
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On June 18th, 2021, President Yoweri Museveni imposed the second lockdown for 42 –days to curb a surge in community coronavirus infections in the country. He suspended public transport including Boda –Boda –a sole means of transport that Aromo depended on for her day-to-day work. Like most journalists who do not have private means of transport, Ms Aromo endured trekking long distances daily to get to her sources for interviews and later file the stories at the radio station located in Forgod Parish, Bardege –Layibi Division in Gulu City.
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Ms Rosemary Anena, another journalist with Radio Pacis, used to get a lift from her Station Manager in his car when he is free, “but a day when he is not free, there would be no way we could violate the presidential directives, we had to foot just like any other person,” Ms Anena says.
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During the lockdown, some journalists chose not to go to the field to interview sources face to face but rather do phone interviews not only to avoid getting exposed to the virus but also to dodge walking long distances. But Ms Anena braced the hardship to get to her sources.
“When you are conducting the interviews one on one, there is a way you get the actual information,” says Ms Anena
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Ms Anena could not forget one morning when she had to walk to the station in the rain to be able to finish her pending work in time before dashing to meet other sources she had fixed interview appointments with. “Reaching the radio station, my clothes were very wet,” Ms Anena recalls.
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With all the challenges Anena faced while executing her tasks during the strict lockdown, her performance declined drastically. From submitting an average of 25 stories a month, she only did 15 stories in July 2021, meaning her take home payment was very little to sustain her and the family through to the next pay day.
Ms Semmy Arao, a journalist with Voice of Gospel Radio in Lira could not bear the pressure of curfew hours and would leave her work place early to avoid encountering soldiers, the police or crime preventers that are usually deployed to enforce adherence to the curfew hours.
“The distance from my home to the radio station is a 45 to 50 minutes’ walk, and since Boda –Boda were banned from carrying passengers, I had to adjust the time I would leave the office. I sign out by about 4pm.” Says Ms Arao.
Ms Lucy Geraldine Acii, the Deputy News Editor at Radio Rupiny, a subsidiary of the Vision Group disclosed that her only fear during curfews and lockdowns is getting attacked by the street gangs since she leaves work late in the evening.
“My work requires me to leave the office very late, like at 8pm, sometimes 8:30pm. Movement in town was not a problem (during the lockdown) because I had my identification. I would meet the security and they would give me a pass but my greatest fear was the street gangs. Whenever I would be going back home, I prayed that I do not come across them,” Ms Acii recalls.
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Ms Diana Ajok, a documentary officer at Refugee Law Project says the challenges that the female journalists faced during the lockdown forced them to look for alternative livelihoods to boost their income.
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Whereas the president eased some of the lockdown restrictions on July 30, 2021, maintaining curfew hours and deploying security personnel to enforce them still causes fear to journalists and their family members since public means of transport stops at 7pm. This leaves a journalist working late with an option of walking home in the evening which is risky.
Curfew hours have also been used by street gangs to threaten and attack women who move alone past curfew hours. They snatch belongings like hand bags or threaten to rape a lone walker.
For more than one and a half years, Uganda has had curfews to curb the spread of the coronavirus during night movements and events. It is not clear when the curfews and other restrictions on transport will be lifted.