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African Journalists, PAOs Share Perspectives During First AFRICOM Media Symposium

Source: U.S Africa Command
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GARMISCH, Germany, September 6, 2012/African Press Organization (APO)/ -- About 65 journalists and military public affairs officers from 13 African nations and the United States gathered here August 27-30, 2012, for the first Public Affairs and the Media Symposium.

The symposium, hosted by U.S. Africa Command, brought together the two groups to share insights, sharpen their skills, and build valuable relationships. The lively discussions highlighted a range of challenges for journalism and public affairs In Africa, including the difficulties of covering rebel fighting, dealing with wild rumors posted on social media, and balancing transparency with national security.

General Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, answered questions via conference call. He highlighted the responsibility of military PAOs in being the "connecting bridge between your military forces and your people" and the role of the journalists to disseminate information. The relationship between the two groups is very important, he said.

"Not that we will always agree--we won't--but we should always maintain the ability to connect with one another and to have an open dialogue," Ham emphasized, "because ultimately our responsibility is to serve the nation. The media does that through information to the populace, and the military does that by its service and accomplishing the military tasks. And I think it would be best when we can do that together."

The group heard from several other distinguished U.S. speakers, including George Little, acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs and Pentagon press secretary; Ambassador Helen La Lime, AFRICOM director of outreach (J-9); and Major General Charles Hooper, AFRICOM director of strategic plans and programs (J-5). Hilary Renner, spokesperson for the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, provided an overview of how interagency coordination works in America.

The four days also included role-specific break-out sessions. The PAOs heard presentations from public affairs directors from U.S. Africa Command, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, and U.S. Naval Forces Africa. Two representatives from Voice of America led discussions with the journalists from Africa.

Moses Sserwanga, of the Uganda Media Development Foundation, led an interactive session on the first day of the symposium that addressed the "African Media Perspective."

"The conference has provided a very good and unique opportunity for both media people and public military affairs officers to come together and understand each others' role, and at the same time bridge the gap, the communication gap, between the media people and the PAOs," he said.

Colonel Felix Kulayigy, defense spokesman for the Uganda People's Defence Force, presented a talk on the "African PAO Perspective."

Buhle Makamanzi, deputy director, Africa Regional Media Hub, gave a presentation about "The Nature of the News." The Africa Regional Media Hub connects the media with specialists from U.S. government and non-government institutions on policy issues relevant to an African audience.

Other presentations included a case study of media relations following the Haiti earthquake and a look at current public affairs operations involved in the African-led effort to counter the Lord's Resistance Army.

The range of views across positions, organizations, and countries created a robust dialogue. The journalists also had opportunities to ask on-the-record questions following each prominent speaker.

The first question asked of Ham hit on the recurring speculation of U.S. Africa Command relocating its headquarters out of Stuttgart, Germany.

"We are very well served by our headquarters here in Germany," he answered, emphasizing, "There are no plans to establish headquarters in Africa."