By Benon Herbet Oluka
In the early 2000s, Reagan Wamajji secured a lifetime opportunity to undertake an internship at Uganda’s parliament. That job placement inspired Wamajji and a group of other interns to eventually start one of Uganda’s most recognisable citizen journalism platforms called Parliament Watch.
So how did that journey start? Wamajji, a social worker by training, says it was all down to their powers of observation, deduction and innovation.
Describing the events that led to their lightbulb moment, Wamajji said he regularly compared the notes he took during sessions and the coverage of the same events in the evening news broadcasts with the next day’s print media stories and concluded that the public was getting a raw deal.
“You would sit in parliament and see what’s happening in [the] plenary and in the committee meetings,” he explained. “Then you see what is reported in the media and you realise that there is a mismatch. Either things are left out or are not reported at all. So, I asked myself, ‘how do I bridge that gap? How do I cover that hole?”
Wamajji reached out to fellow interns with his observations and the questions that were bothering him. Some of them shared similar frustrations. Eventually, working together, they decided to map out a solution to the problem.
And that’s how they zeroed in on the idea of sharing as much information as possible with the public via social media platforms like Twitter.
“We didn’t have a media house [with which to disseminate information] but we had social media platforms like Twitter that are free, which we could utilise to broadcast. So, we said, ‘why don’t we create a Parliament Watch Twitter handle?” recalled Wamajji, who is the platform’s current team leader.
Parliament Watch came to life on Twitter in March 2013, and today its account has more than 101,000 followers. On Facebook, they have more than 30,500 followers.
At inception, the co-founders and pioneer staff members of Parliament Watch included Wamajji, John Asiimwe, Irene Ikomu, Joseph Nyangabo, Jackie Kemigisa, Musa Mugoya, Winnie Watera, and Isaac Okello. Only one member of the group was studying journalism.
Asiimwe, the only other person from the initial group who is still with Parliament Watch, says that from the onset, they could see the information delivery gap that existed within an institution through which legislators are supposed to represent every Ugandan citizen. They decided to provide round-the-clock coverage through social media.
“The idea was, ‘how can we be as comprehensive as possible in providing a 360 coverage of parliament from the committees to the plenary, leaving nothing behind and targeting individuals and organisations who want particular information from bills to policy papers to the plenary, and of course doing it in a way that is cost-effective?’” she stated. “And so, Twitter became the easiest because at that time we were the only people tweeting live from parliament.”
With time, Parliament Watch gained traction to a point where a Twitter hashtag that they coined, #PlenaryUG, became the go-to phrase for tracking online information regarding any activity in Uganda’s legislative body.
Asiimwe says seeing their platform grow into an “almost official channel of communication” for Uganda’s parliament is a testament to the fact that they have played a crucial information dissemination role over the last nine years.
The Director of Communications and Public Affairs in Uganda’s parliament, Chris Obore, seems to agree with Asiimwe. In a separate interview for this story, he said, “When Parliament Watch came into the picture, there was a need [for the services they offer], there was a gap because the staffing [of the communications department] was low. And their presence in parliament was in line with the ideal way parliament seeks to operate as an institution that is open to the people.”
The Office of the Leader of Opposition in Uganda’s 11th parliament also views Parliament Watch as a crucial platform for information dissemination to the public. Sadab Kitatta, the Senior Public Affairs Officer in the office of the current Leader of Opposition, Mathias Mpuuga, says they are working out an arrangement where Parliament Watch “can help us amplify [information about] our activities” to the Ugandan public.
“The theme of [the Leader of Opposition’s] tenure is to be accountable for everything he does while holding that office,” Kitatta said in an interview. “The only way he can do that is to ensure all the information about his activities is available to the public. And having Parliament Watch as a parliament enhances our capacity to achieve our objectives.”
However, while the work that Parliament Watch does has caught the attention of both decision-makers and the public, they are also coming under greater scrutiny. Obore, for instance, notes that Parliament Watch has grown in stature to a point where it creates a communication overrun with the official parliament channels of communication, especially when there is a divergence in the messages that go out to the public.
“What I am seeing of late is that sometimes the public mistakes their work to be the official position of parliament, which only works when what they are tweeting is correct. But when they make mistakes, like can happen with any other publishing business, it has always brought problems,” he said.
Obore says the onus is on Parliament Watch to raise their professional standards to ensure they do not become captive to partisan interests or inadvertently mislead the public due to the inability of their staff to produce credible content.
“They have to improve on their professionalism, their skills, their analysis of the issues in parliament, because normally what destroys such organisations is if they are not grounded in the issues they cover or if interest groups hijack them. But if they stay the course, they are making a useful contribution,” he said.
For Asiimwe, one of the challenges that Parliament Watch faces is that not many people understand the hybrid model of non-profit work that they run. She says they operate at the intersection between media and advocacy roles.
“When you are a hybrid organisation, some people look at you as a civil society group and they expect you to be very vocal as an advocacy organisation. Yet others look at us as a media outfit which should be independent,” she explains. “The challenge, of course, is managing those expectations, but what we have always attempted to do is to be very intentional on what our objectives are and sticking to them.”
Wamajji is the first to concede that their team is stretched for strength, especially from the time the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns forced their organisation to downsize its operations.
“Because of the restrictions on the number of people who were able to operate from within parliament at any given time, all our staff were not able to all be there to cover all activities, so we had to scale down some areas of our coverage, especially on committees,” he admits.
However, challenges like Covid-19 have also brought some opportunities, and Parliament Watch is looking to improve on the digital tools that they use to reach the Ugandan public, including by developing applications to track activity within parliament.
“One thing we have always pushed for was the utilisation of digital platforms as a means of engagement between Parliament and public,” she said. “The pandemic has created more opportunities for utilising these platforms than ever before us. So, that is a plus for us, all things considered.”
To liberate Parliament Watch from accusations of operating as a partisan organisation whose work bridges ethical boundaries, the team behind it operates a mothership called the Centre for Policy Analysis, a non-profit think tank through which they are able to carry out their other policy research and advocacy activities independent of their citizen journalism project.
“Through the Centre for Policy Analysis, we do a lot of things, including our programmes on governance, accountability and human rights. So, for instance, in the last five years, we have supported the Parliament of Uganda to carry out research, conduct training, and undertake the induction of new members of parliament. We have developed manuals for how committees can run, and we have an accountability handbook that we produce that committees even up to now use,” explained Asiimwe.
Parliament Watch, on the other hand, seeks to grow with the help of kindred spirits across Africa, like the Parliament Monitoring Group in South Africa and the Mzalendo in Kenya. Asiimwe says they appreciate how the two “kind of became alternative bodies for information” on the parliaments of their respective countries and they wish to continue learning from them.
Speaking about their plans going forward, Asiimwe says they are working towards growing a regional footprint across East Africa, starting with Tanzania, then exploring a similar opportunity in Rwanda and South Sudan.
“We are hoping that we will be able to have sister Parliament Watch in Tanzania and Rwanda, where we don’t have similar organisations. And then of course build the coalition of parliament monitoring groups within the East African Community,” she said. “For Tanzania, we have started having the conversation and we should be able to put together the ideas soon.”