Over the course of a 13-year journalism career, Joel Ssenyonyi, has anchored news on television and hosted several talk shows but last week he made a surprise career switch to politics.
He is only days in his new job as spokesperson of the Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi-led People Power Movement. In an interview last week with Baker Batte Lule, the former NTV news anchor discussed his new career choic. Excerpts:
To the uninitiated, who is Joel Ssenyonyi?
I’m a 32-year-old Ugandan who has practiced journalism for 13 years. My journey started at UBC in 2006. I eventually ventured into radio and at the time of resigning last week, I was doing a radio talk show at Power FM and hosting talk-shows at NTV and anchoring news.
My first degree was a bachelor of science in business statistics and I’m currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Law at Makerere University. In August, I will be in my fourth year.
You studied business statistics; how did you end up in journalism?
I began journalism before the business statistics degree. My passion in media began in school. I would read newspapers. In secondary school, we used to read news gathered throughout the week and many times I would be asked to read.
So, when I completed my S6 exams, I approached media houses and asked to be hired. I went to WBS TV, they said they would get back to me. UBC, which had just morphed from UTV, put out adverts for anchors.
I applied although my highest qualification was a Senor Four certificate. But I said what do I stand to lose; the worst thing they could do was say no. They called me for interviews and I met people with master’s degrees, bachelor’s, but they kept calling me back for all the four interviews and finally I was selected. When I started university, I said I should do something different, after all I was already doing journalism.
How did you arrive at the decision that it’s time to call it quits?
It wasn’t an easy decision to make because plunging into politics can be perilous in a country like ours. People Power started like an idea; we would meet every so often over tea from different professions; journalists, lawyers, doctors, among others, asking ourselves what to do.
When the social media tax was introduced, we said let’s confront this thing by putting up a peaceful demonstration and that’s how the thing started to grow and before we knew it, it was out of our hands. Earlier on comrades would ask whether I should speak for them but I couldn’t at the time because I was still in the media.
It’s you who has been anchoring stories of how the state treats those who come out to oppose it; are you prepared to handle everything that comes your way?
You can never say that I’m fully prepared, it’s a continuous process but what’s important is that I’m very resolute and very determined. I’m not in this without knowing what I should expect. It’s going to be tough but like I said, somebody has got to do it.
I’m not trying to be a hero but I think this is my small contribution. I call on other people who are like me, those in some sort of comfort zone in the corporate world to join me. They might not do what I’m doing but they should get involved in the affairs of their country.
Did your participation in the OTT demonstration put you in trouble with your former employer?
Well, we had a discussion but I had already made it very clear to them that I’m a citizen first before I’m a journalist. My life as Joel doesn’t stop because I work at a particular media house. Of course when you are on TV, you represent the brand; so, there are things you cannot do.
But I made it very clear that I will exercise my rights as a citizen and I will speak out about the ills and perhaps do something about them within the law and that is what I have done. The state has not been happy about it; they would send security people to intimidate me.
They would keep saying I’m not impartial but why shouldn’t I speak about wrong things because I’m a journalist? If anything, it’s me who should speak about the ills because I have a platform.
I saw Ofwono Opondo say that because I’m a journalist, I have been ousted. I think that is a ludicrous statement intended to try to intimidate other journalists not to speak out against government. That’s preposterous and should be treated with the disdain it deserves. Journalists are citizens who have rights.
How did your participation in the demonstration affect your work and how you were perceived?
There are principles of journalism and you want to stick to them. If I’m interviewing the minister of finance and I tell him the economy is doing badly, I quote figures. I will use the Ubos statistics. You try to remain as factual as you can be.
Again if you are going to host an interview, don’t host only people from the opposition, make sure it’s a balanced talk-show. The challenge was that government people wouldn’t want to show up and some would quietly tell you to excuse them because their thing is difficult to defend.
Some would actually confirm attendance and they wouldn’t show up. So, you end up hosting somebody from the opposition and if I’m the host, I wouldn’t speak for government. That’s how they end up saying we hold biased interviews
How do you get people from their comfort zones to get involved?
It’s continuous engagement because the state has made it look like you commit treason when you criticise them. Many people are afraid but what I see now is encouraging because many people are beginning to speak out.
Five or more years ago, there wasn’t as much boldness on social media as it is today. Things are slowly but surely going to change; it’s not going to happen in a day but there is some progress and we will continue to tell them that guys, don’t sit and watch as injustices happen. Should they come out all and be like me; a lot more should and a lot more are doing it but everybody can and should play a part.
In Sudan professionals have led demonstrations that ousted long-time serving President Omar Hassan Al Bashir…can that happen here?
It depends on how resolute Ugandans are. What has happened in Sudan is, power has shifted from one military man to another set of military people and that’s why people are still on the streets. But coming back here, Ugandans are increasingly becoming emboldened and know it is their responsibility to hold their leaders accountable; who knows, one day it might happen here.
Would you guys support change of government not through the ballot but other means used in the Sudan?
Our elections are very problematic; they are predetermined like the Supreme court has ruled on three occasions. But we know that elections are one legitimate way of transitioning; so, it’s one option on the table.
We believe this man can be overwhelmed depending on how people are organised. But all legal mechanisms are on the table, we are not like President Museveni who came to power through bloodletting…we have seen enough of that and we wouldn’t want to go there.
We want to see a transition but it must be a managed transition. We don’t want our country to go up in flames like Libya. We hope the transition can happen soon enough but even if it doesn’t, and we go for an election, we want to do so with a weakened Museveni. He is already weakened but we want him more weakened so that we just push him.
People have argued that the genius of People Power is its amorphousness; doesn’t the appointment of Joel Ssenyonyi undermine that positive trait?
It’s a debate we have been having…some folks have suggested we form a political party but we believe with due respect to parties that we don’t need a party now. We don’t think it is the solution to Uganda’s predicament.
Even when you form a party, you exclude others who are DP, FDC, and NRM who have professed People Power. But we are saying, even if you don’t form a political party, you can and you should be organised and structured.
We have reached out to different people across the country; we will continue to broaden that. But we are not about to expose them because the state will go after them. We realised that even when you’re a movement, you’re structured such that whichever activity you execute, you operate and move in a particular direction; otherwise, it becomes so problematic. The wave is good because it has made us grow but it’s important that it’s directed in a particular direction.
In 2011, you contested for the Central region youth MP; are you interested in any particular office?
I will be very honest; as of now, it’s not something I’m thinking about. Of course there are people who have told me to stand but I have not decided. Let’s wait and see how things go. For now, let me focus on being the spokesperson of People Power.
Are you convinced choosing politics was the right decision and much less the right people you should be allying with?
I’m allying with the people of Uganda who say that power belongs to them; if anybody sees a problem with that, that’s their problem.
I see many people allying with People Power are these people joining for personal interests; interested in political positions. How does that affect People Power?
We have an open-door policy; that’s why you have people coming from all political parties chanting People Power. But as the wave builds, there is going to be a bit of trouble because when you light a fire, you will have different things move towards it; butterflies, moths and all manner of things, which is not bad because for us we want the wave to grow and for every Ugandan to profess People Power.
Of course others will come for selfish interests because this is politics but for starters, we like the idea that people are coming. We shall continuously engage them when time comes to agree on who should be the best candidate for a particular position.
But in every election cycle efforts to agree on a single candidate have failed. What magic will you use this time round to convince people to step down for others?
Incidentally it shouldn’t be magic but better planning. The failure of different efforts has largely come down to doing things at the last minute. People need time to understand that we need one candidate for a particular constituency.
The unity in the opposition ranks is good when you engage earlier. It’s good that we have a good working relationship with the DP-block, the Alliance for National Transformation, Jeema and other entities and now we have kicked off a working relationship with Dr Kizza Besigye and the people’s government. We have agreed that we are both working for the same struggle and our enemy is the NRM and Museveni; so, we shouldn’t point guns at each other. That’s a good point to start.
What is your typical day like in your new life?
It’s a lot busier; less time to sleep, lots of meetings, lots of media interviews but I’m trying to strike a balance although it isn’t very easy.