Gauging Public Interest (Part One): Survey Reveals That Over 56% of Community Members and CSO Representatives are Following Ongwen’s Trial

This article, the first in a series of three posts, uses results from a rapid assessment of 50 community members and civil society representatives in northern Uganda in September 2017 to measure the level of public interest in following the trial of Dominic Ongwen at the International Criminal Court (ICC). While 56% of respondents said they were following the trial, many of them admitted they were only following on an irregular basis. The remaining 44% said they were not following the trial at all, citing a variety of reasons ranging from busy schedules to a lack of interest because the trial is taking place far away from Uganda. The findings also revealed that radio is the most popular method by which respondents get updates. This article will examine perspectives from the 56% of participants who said they were following the trial. It will examine why they are interested in following the trial, how frequently they do so, and which avenues they use.

Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in attacks on camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. The attacks took place between 2003 and 2004 in the camps of Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi. His trial at the ICC opened on December 6, 2016, and is still ongoing in The Hague, Netherlands.

Considering that this is the first international crimes trial involving a senior LRA commander following over two decades of civil war in northern Uganda, coupled with the divisive debate that has surrounded the ICC since it got involved in Uganda in 2004, high public interest in the trial, particularly in northern Uganda, is to be expected. Researchers from the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI) gathered information from 50 participants in northern Uganda in an attempt to gauge the level of interest.

Asked whether they were following Ongwen’s trial, 56% of the 50 respondents consulted responded in the affirmative.

“I have been following in newspapers, online, and through the ICC public screenings. These are the most common sources of information available to me and are very reliable. That is why I have chosen to use them to get information about the trial,” said Pamela, a representative of a community-based civil society organization (CSO) in northern Uganda.

“I am following the trial very closely and I just cannot wait to see the final resolution, however far in the future it is,” said Ronald, a shopkeeper in Gulu Town.

Stella, a former LRA abductee, said, “I often follow as long as it is on the radio and whenever the ICC outreach team organizes a public screening. I follow frequently, because it is important for us the victims to know whether there is truth telling and justice being practiced by the ICC.”

Christopher, a community member in Gulu, said, “I read updates in the newspapers, I attend meetings organized by the ICC and CSOs and sometimes I get to listen on the radio. I use all these ways so that I am kept well updated.”

The above indicates a high level of interest in following Ongwen’s trial by those questioned. However, when asked how frequently they were following the trial, many revealed they were only doing so occasionally. Only 7% of respondents were following on a daily basis. Another 7% said they were following on a weekly basis. They cited a variety of reasons, ranging from busy schedules to a lack of internet connectivity.

“I follow it weekly due to my tight schedule and poor internet connection, though at the start of the trial, I was following it daily,” said Joseph, a student at Gulu University.

On a more discouraging note, 32% said they were following the trial on a monthly basis, while another 54% admitted that they were only following occasionally and on an irregular basis. They cited various reasons for this.

Douglas, a trader in Gulu Town, said, “I have been following the trial but only occasionally, because it is now somehow becoming boring. It is not making sense the way I hoped or expected.”

“I have been following but only occasionally, since most of my time I am here at the market working,” said Jennifer, a trader in Gulu Market.

“I follow it occasionally, because the rate at which the information is given is also occasional. Sometimes I can stay for a month or more without getting any information about the trial,” said Patrick.

The above shows that while there is high interest in following the trial, there is also laxity due to various factors such as busy work schedules.

The findings also revealed that the radio is the most popular way of following the trial. Of those interviewed, 37% revealed that they relied on the radio to get regular updates.

“I have been following on the radio because it is the only means available to me to get information,” said Immaculate, a resident of Gulu Town.

“I am following weekly on the radio because I only have a radio. On the radio, updates are given weekly. I also do not know how to read and write, so this means I cannot access information in the newspapers or online,” said Jenifer, another trader.

Reliance on the radio can be attributed to the fact that much of northern Uganda’s rural population does not have television or access to the internet. Next to the radio, newspapers or print media were cited by 22% of respondents as their favored method of receiving updates. Understandably, the respondents who cited print media as their source were those based in urban areas such as Gulu Town.

Ronald, a trader in Gulu Town, said, “I have been following the trial on a weekly basis because the sources of information I use publish it weekly. Still, some weeks, I get no information, so I keep wondering what is happening. I have been following via radio, television, and newspaper because these are the most available to me and they keep me company in my shop as I wait for customers. The other sources are very expensive and some are digitized or for special groups like CSO meetings.”

Compared to the radio, however, newspapers can be expensive, especially when it is the only alternative available. “I only read the newspapers when I get the opportunity to go to town. It is very expensive to travel to town, so I only follow the trial occasionally,” said James, a community member and CSO representative from eastern Uganda.

Since the start of the trial, the ICC field outreach team has been organizing public screenings in the former IDP camps of Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi, in addition to other locations such as Gulu Town. Accordingly, 12% of those interviewed said they relied on public screenings or meetings organized by the ICC and CSOs to get updates about the trial. Another 12% said they obtained updates whenever they aired on television.

Susan, a community member, said, “In Lukodi there are always screenings organized for the community. I always manage to attend and watch together with other community members.  Sometimes there are meetings organized by the ICC and I attend those too.”

Vincent, another community member, said, “I only follow when there is a public screening here in Lukodi.”

Finally, 10% of the respondents indicated that they were following the trial online or through regular email updates sent out by the ICC field outreach team and civil society organizations. Only 2% said they were following the trial through social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook.

“I am following the trial almost daily on the Acholi Google Group through updates by FJDI. I am also following the trial through the ICC website, internet, social media, and updates on FJDI’s Facebook page. These are the most available sources of information for me and at least I have time to check them regularly,” said Samuel, a computer trainer in Gulu Town.

The above findings indicate a substantial amount of interest from the public in following Ongwen’s trial. However, they also point to a need for the ICC Field Outreach Unit and CSOs to increase their use of the most popular avenues such as radio, while at the same time devising strategies to popularize the least used channels such as social media. Social media can be used to target populations such as the youth. The fact that only 56% of the population are following the trial points to a need for strategies to prevent further loss of interest from the public. In the next post in the series, we will examine perspectives from the 44% of respondents who said they were not following the trial.

Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda since 2006. He is also the co-founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local non-governmental organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women, and communities to promote justice, development, and economic recovery in northern Uganda.