17th November 2005

Kevin: what a loss!

By Steve Buttry

I was supposed to help Kevin learn about training during his week in Omaha. I can’t imagine that he learned as much from me as I learned from him.

ABOVE: Kevin's children, Susan Akech (Tiny), Joan Athieno (Jojo), Frank Kisakye and Ian Ortega.

John Ogen Kevin Aliro, then the editor of The Monitor, was visiting the Omaha World-Herald for a week in 2003 as part of his Foster Davis Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.

Kevin was interested in training and I did a lot of training, so Paul Pohlman of Poynter asked me if I would host his visit to a U.S. newsroom.

When you meet a colleague from another country, you ask a lot of questions. Kevin’s answers amazed me. He told of experiences as a war correspondent in Rwanda and Congo. He told of the fight for press freedom in a country where [former president] Idi Amin had exiled or exterminated virtually all journalists.

Kevin was leading efforts to develop the free press in the post-Amin Uganda. Even now, the government isn’t sure how much it wants a free press.

Kevin told of restrictions on what he could report from Congo and how he tried to hint at the facts in his stories about Ugandan troops in the war there. He told of angering the government so much that the paper’s computers were seized and the paper was shut down for a week or so. He told about having an arm broken in an assault after a story the government didn’t like.

Kevin's widow, Elizabeth Birabwa lays a wreath on her late husband's casket.

He didn’t tell the stories boastfully, just gave matter-of-fact answers to our questions. I didn’t fully appreciate how much Kevin meant to Uganda until I took him to visit an Omaha operation called Computers for Africa, which rehabbed used computers and sent them to Uganda and a couple other African countries.

The program was run by a Jesuit high school and the leaders of the computer project brought in a Jesuit missionary who was home from Uganda on furlough.
The missionary immediately recognised Kevin’s name. “You’re Kevin Aliro?” he asked. “Do you think they’ll let you back into the country?”

Kevin went back to his country, where journalism education and training were just starting to recover from the years with no press freedom. He desperately wanted to give Uganda’s journalists the kind of training opportunities he had seen in the United States. Before he left Omaha, he was talking about bringing me to Uganda to train journalists at The Monitor.

After his return to Uganda, Kevin left The Monitor and started another newspaper, The Weekly Observer.
As busy as he became in that project, he did not forget his passion for training Ugandan journalists. He sent me an e-mail proposal for a journalism training institute in Uganda. He wanted to name it after Richard Tebere, a pioneer of Uganda’s free press.

Together we polished the proposal and I tried to interest some organisations in joining us to seek a grant to start the institute. I’m embarrassed at how weak my efforts were. For Kevin, it was a passion. For me, it was one of several balls I was trying to keep aloft.

Kevin pressed me to help him provide training for journalists in Uganda. I connected him with a friend, Ken Freed, who was retired and had worked overseas extensively as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

Ken went to Kampala for a few months to help Kevin train his staff at The Weekly Observer.
The Tebere Institute proposal was on my someday list when I came to API. I had other higher priorities to address first, but I hoped to pursue it someday as an API project.

On September 29, I received a message from Kevin that gave me hope that API would have an opportunity to help him. He understood that the U.S. Embassy in Kampala might be able to support bringing a U.S. journalist to Uganda to work as an editor at The Weekly Observer and help with training the staff for six months. I messaged some friends and found several who would be willing to help, some for a month or two, some for the full six months.

I messaged Kevin that I had plenty of volunteers to choose from and would contact the embassy about how to seek funding. An auto-reply message informed me that Kevin had been hospitalised. He first entered the hospital, complaining of headaches, on October 4, just five days after he had written to me.

Last week I connected with the U.S. embassy and the public affairs officer there said she had no funding for the program I described. I’m not sure whether Kevin was mistaken or whether he was merely hopeful of persuading the embassy or someone to fund the program. I do know he was a tremendously optimistic and persuasive person. I tend to believe he would have found a way.

I messaged him again, telling him of the response from the embassy. Again, I received an auto-reply saying that he was in hospital.

I learned this weekend that Kevin died Saturday. Obituaries in The Weekly Observer and The Monitor describe what an important journalist he was in his homeland.

He was an inspiration as well to this journalist who has not yet made it to Uganda. And deeply regrets that.

The author is the director of tailored programmes at the American Press Institute (API). This article was posted on the API website.


Adieu, dear Kevin
Kevin: what a loss!
A friend I will never meet
Observer, friends, media fraternity mourn Kevin
Kevin spirit will live on
Tears for a fallen friend