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
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
what a loss!
friend I will never meet
friends, media fraternity mourn Kevin
spirit will live on
for a fallen friend