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Machrine Birungi

Ugandan journalist Machrine Birungi speaks to Maria Sonni-Ali about the progression of her career as a journalist and her programme on adolescence and sexual health rights in Uganda [read]

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Machrine Birungi

Machrine is deputy editor at the Uganda Radio Network. She also works as a media trainer, and contributed to Uganda’s first ever media syllabus through its national diploma in journalism. In January 2005 she was awarded first prize in the economic development category of the US Embassy in Uganda’s radio awards.

The Ugandan-born journalist has been contributing to InterWorld Radio since 2005. Machrine spoke to Maria Sonni-Ali about the progression of her career as a journalist and her recent commission on Ugandan adolescence and sexual health rights.

What inspired you to pursue a career in radio journalism?

I was initially inspired by my father. He always made me listen to the radio, especially in the evenings after doing the household chores. His favourite stations were the BBC and Voice of America, and he would ask me to listen to the programmes and tell him what I had heard. It was a challenge, but little did I know that this would spark my interest in radio.

When I joined senior one, my father bought me a small radio which I would carry to school and listen to in my free time. Unlike the other teenagers who were into music, I was always interested in the news and stories about other places.

During my O-Level vacation my father helped me form a radio listening club which brought young people together to listen to radio programmes and discuss what they had heard. I felt the power of radio because of the increased level of awareness and information.

I was also inspired by the late Charles Canary Mugisha, who used to read the news and presented current affairs on Radio Uganda. I loved his voice and the style he used in telling the stories.

Small wonder that when I completed university in 1997, I went straight to Radio Uganda (now the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation) where I worked as a reporter in the current affairs section. Everyone around me looked mature but I was determined to prove myself, and at the end of the year I was declared best reporter. This gave me the momentum to push ahead with radio journalism.

I then worked as bureau chief for the Telecoms Magazine in Nairobi, news editor for several private stations including Top Radio, Prime Radio, and Radio Equator, programmes manager at Prime Radio, and I’m now deputy editor/web editor for the Uganda Radio Network based in Bukoto.

I began contributing to InterWorld Radio in 2005. I wanted to tell stories that are ignored or invisible to our media. IWR’s focus and style pushed me to get that story of the common man. I always feel relieved when I handle stories with human impact because then I know I’m communicating to people who identify with the issues I’m covering.

What do you think of the Ugandan government criticising the press for focusing on sensational or negative stories?

I don’t think that the stories are sensational. The media in Uganda is just growing and we are also grappling with the challenge of reporting intelligently, which perhaps means avoiding stories that are political or that pit one force against the other. Sometimes I feel ashamed when I read a story with the headline “president blasts opposition” on the front page of a paper only to find one saying “farmers grapple with drought” in the middle pages.

I think the greatest challenge for the journalists is to sniff out a story that has an impact on the people, a story that affects the ordinary person; otherwise the politicians are out there to use us for their selfish gains. We are in an information era where our audiences should not be taken for granted by giving them garbage. A poor man wants information that can help him turn his life around.

What have you learned from your recent feature on adolescent sexual rights in Uganda?

This feature looks at young people and what they think about their bodies in light of existing threats and policies. I chose to focus on the Naguru Teenage Centre because this is one of the most popular groups in Uganda where young people can shed their fears and express themselves without any inhibitions. I don’t think I would have succeeded in talking to them in the way I did outside this centre.

The story is rooted in the need to raise awareness that teenage sentiments and attitudes have transformed over the last few years. The whole language around sexual health has changed – for example, a lot of slang is being used to keep young people informed about the issues that surround them.

Teenagers today are more positive about life than when I was young. Back then, when a teenager became pregnant the immediate recourse would be abortion or even suicide, because the wrath from their parents would be difficult to cope with. I see many teenagers today who cope with being pregnant, give birth and even go back to school.

Teenagers today have a lot more freedom. They are far more informed than I was, when even information about menstruation was strictly confined to biology classes. Now teenagers have access to the internet, the music industry has developed, there is at least one drama theatre in every area, and there is a lot of information flowing down to them. Social inhibitions are also a thing of the past. Today teenagers feel free to express themselves.


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