By Joseph Lagen
Veteran journalist John Semakula has been appointed the new head of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Uganda Christian University (UCU).
Semakula takes on the role within the university’s Faculty of Journalism, Media and Communication from Dr. Emily Maractho who is now the Director of the university’s Africa Policy Centre (APC). The APC grooms policy researchers and political thinkers and provides a platform for learning and discussion of modern-day issues.
Semakula, an award-winning journalist, said of his new appointment: “This new position is a great opportunity for me to use the skills and experience I have built over the last 13 years in journalism practice to serve my alma mater.”
He noted that he is well aware of the huge responsibility of the new office. One of Semakula’s objectives is to double the number of students within the Department. Currently, 150 new students are admitted to the course every year.
The second more important objective is about competence and quality. Having quality, competent journalism graduates from UCU, Semakula believes, will help to safeguard the journalism profession.
Semakula’s first relationship with UCU was in 2003, when he joined the institution as a student of Bachelor of Mass Communication. When he completed his course, the university retained him, to work as part of the inaugural team for a community newspaper, The Standard, that the university had established. He served as a writer at the newspaper from 2007 to 2009.
While at UCU both as a student and staff of The Standard, Semakula often contributed articles to Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper because he saw the platform as one which could offer him the opportunity to cut his professional teeth.
In 2010, Semakula joined Uganda’s leading daily newspaper, the New Vision, to practice journalism at a more competitive level.
“At the New Vision, I quickly grew through the ranks, becoming a Senior Writer only two years later,” he said. “This kind of promotion usually takes journalists over 20 years.”
In 2016, Semakula enrolled at UCU to pursue a Master of Journalism and Media Studies.
“I studied the MA program and graduated within the stipulated period of two years,” Semakula recalls. Alongside his graduate studies, Semakula still kept his job at New Vision, and, by this time, he had also started teaching at UCU on a part-time basis.
Semakula was introduced to teaching by the present dean of the Faculty of Journalism, Media and Communication, Prof. Monica Chibita, whom he met at an awards ceremony in 2014. A month after the ceremony, Semakula reached out to her through a phone call, expressing his desire to teach at UCU.
“Prof. Chibita is good at identifying talent,” Semakula said. “I guess she noticed my ability at the awards ceremony.”
Upon passing the interview, Semakula started out as a Teaching Assistant in the Department of Mass Communication. He handled course units related to writing news and feature stories.
“The New Vision had a busy newsroom, but I would always find time on Saturdays and Mondays when I was off duty, to teach at UCU,” Semakula says. He had eight teaching hours every week at UCU, which he would execute in the two days he was off duty.
“I often planned my teaching materials and marked course works and exams at night.” Semakula says.
The extra work served to energize Semakula who maintained his productivity and increased his accolades at New Vision. In 2017, he was winner of the Uganda WASH Media Awards in the Print Investigative Category – an honor he won alongside Ronald Mugabe, another New Vision acclaimed print journalist. In the same year, Semakula was a finalist for the Africa Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) Awards in the Justice, Law and Order category.
A year earlier, Semakula’s New Vision data investigative piece, Hot districts that will determine winner of the 2016 presidential elections won him the ACME Data National Journalism Award.
In bestowing the accolade, the judges said of his article: “It (the article) went beyond the numbers to investigate how population distribution could be used to predict the winner of the 2016 presidential election and to trace voting patterns. It was only one of a handful of news reports in 2014 that analysed the census data to understand Uganda’s current political climate and future voting trends.”
In the same year, he was a co-writer for the winning stories in the Business, Finance and Economy and the National News – Print categories for the same awards.
By the time he put down his pen in preference for the chalk as a full-time occupation, Semakula had won more than seven journalism awards.
Despite his career achievements, Semakula thinks he still has a mountain to climb.
“At a personal level, I want to get a PhD in media and communication in the next four years,” he says. For the faculty, he envisions the revival of The Standard newspaper, which was a victim of cost-cutting measures in the university as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Presently, the faculty is creating the university’s epaper, The Standard Digital, a multi-media platform that is a direct response to the changing patterns of consumption of information.
“At UCU, we equip students with the skills that the market wants. So, through The Standard Digital and UCU’s social media platforms, I will make sure that our graduates get the digital skills needed for the times,” Semakula remarked.
Alongside his teaching career, Semakula also contributes articles to two foreign news-sites – Religion Unplugged in the US and the Sight in Australia. Semakula also is the Communications Coordinator at Uganda Partners – a U.S.-based organisation that raises awareness about UCU.