Journalists and the news media organisations in East Africa are today confronted with unprecedented economic and market challenges, increasing distrust, denigration of the journalistic work, and new forms of digital repression exacerbated by Covid-19.

Journalists and the news media organisations in East Africa are today confronted with unprecedented economic and market challenges, increasing distrust, denigration of the journalistic work, and new forms of digital repression.

Global Forum for Media Development’s Michael J. Oghia and Mira Milosevic note that these unprecedented challenges are global and affect journalism and news media organisations all over the world. 

Even as they respond to the unprecedented challenges, the three East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania present varying scenarios, leading to different baseline environments for ensuring media viability.  While the media in Kenya favours high quality foreign contents, the Ugandan and Tanzanian media, favours local productions with a more liberal landscape as far as content production is concerned. But like in most parts of the world, the East African media has also seen the plummeting advertising revenues occasioned by the digital disruptions exacerbated by Covid-19.   This article, a summary of three detailed reports based on the media viability indicators, is a review of the national level media viability context within which news media organisations in these three countries operate. The full reports will be published in the first quarter of 2021.  

An overview

Starting with Tanzania: the country has a media landscape that is diverse and vibrant, with traditional media like TV, radio and newspapers giving the audience a variety of content choices. The internet penetration has increased and the country has since leapt from a low income country to a lower middle income country, and this presents encouraging possibilities for the political economy of the media. However, since the coming to power of the fifth republic, a combination of political and legislative processes, especially with regard to media freedom and online content regulations have come to effect with a fairly constraining effect on the media and journalism.  

In Kenya, the journey from the post independent autocratic regimes, which constrained the media space have paved way for the more progressive, liberal and open governments of the last two decades. The attendant economic growth and advanced communication technology has created a media ecosystem that has spurred independence and freedom of the media. Thus, the viability of the media has oscillated from extreme constraint in fairly closed media systems during the presidencies of the first two heads of state, to moderate freedom and exponential growth of the industry in the last two decades. In fact, the coming to power of President Mwai Kibaki after the 2002 general election expanded the media industry into a multi-billion-dollar industry and ushered in a commercialism culture. Today media personalities are big time celebrities and media institutions have become commercial enterprises in the hands of a few elite owners, a situation that has raised conversations around profit maximisation and public interest dialectics. 

In Uganda the 1990s liberalisation and privatisation policies freed the airwaves and made private investment less complicated. Today, the country enjoys a diversity of newspapers and magazines; a growing broadcast media made up of 39 TV and 309 radio stations and a fast-growing online media driven by rapid technological developments that have seen greater use of smartphones in the country. But like its neighbours, the threats to freedom and independence of the media are real and the legislative frameworks and the political environment have incrementally stifled freedom of the press and growth of the media. 

Supporting innovation to foster viability

With COVID-19 hitting media houses and causing job losses, media managers and analysts alike, are looking to innovations to save the day. This summary and the detailed report provide a pathway for concretely looking at the national level media viability factors and the underpinnings that can then support innovations for media viability. 

DW Akademie’s five dimensions of media viability, situate the innovation potential, not just as a function of a news media organisation’s viability, but as a function of the overarching environment within the news media organisation exists. Nadine Jurrat contextualises this in the case of Liberia’s Front Page Africa. She draws from the DW Akademie’s Media Viability Indicators (MVIs) and contextualising in the Liberian reality to give five very insightful lessons in her article – Media Viability: ‘Success is more than clicks and profit

Kenya

In Kenya, despite the high internet penetration and a robust media, the media ecosystem is characterised by a politico economic structure whose stranglehold on the media system presents challenges on the independence of the media. The country has a progressive constitution and one of the most expansive bill of rights with freedom of expression, the media and of access to information enshrined in articles 33, 34 and 35 respectively. But there are inherent challenges with the rule of law and respect for the rule of law. World Justice Project (WJR, 2019), for instance, gives Kenya a score of 0.45 on a scale of zero to 1 on the Rule of Law Index and 0.53 out of 1 for protection for freedom of expression. Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF, 2020) gives Kenya a score of 33.72 percent (103/180) on the World Press Freedom Index (WPFI). 

Freedom House (2020) on the other hand rates Kenya as Partly Free with a total score of 48/100 and a score of 19/40 for Political Rights. Scholars like Morusoi (2016) argue that other than the close link between the media and the country’s political establishment, the media in Kenya seems to be a target from two distinct set of laws that have a bearing on legal equality. Laws with direct adverse effect that explicitly target freedom of expression with the direct effect of suppressing it and incidental laws that are omni bus in nature, which while not necessarily targeting freedom of expression, still affect the right to freedom of expression incidentally. 

Overall, in Kenya, there seems to be a robust environment and potential for expansion of a more democratic public space where society is informed from a diversity of voices as individuals are free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution. Besides the diversity, progressive legislation and a fairly free and independent media environment; the freedom to express views on sensitive political issues emerges to be the critical factor in media innovation and viability as far as expansion of the democratic space and informing the society is concerned. 

Kenya scores an impressive 3 out of 4 according to Freedom House (2020) on this freedom to express personal views on political and other sensitive topics. This freedom coupled with the impressive internet penetration (87.20 percent compared to Africa’s average of 39.30 percent; Internet World Stats, 2020) provides pathways for innovations that can expand the public sphere and enhance the normative functions of the media.

Tanzania

Tanzania’s fifth republic has been fairly ambivalent and the socio-political and economic landscape presents what Legal and Human Right Centre (LHRC) in the 2020 report describes as a continuous deterioration, of freedom of expression in Tanzania. The emergent reports from Tanzania speak of the existence and implementation of restrictive laws such as Media Services Act of 2016 and the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations of 2018 among others. Moreover, the country has witnessed increasing bans and suspension of media outlets, a shrinking civic space and arbitrary humiliation, arrests, disappearance and/or detention of journalists. The list of notable arrests since 2015 includes the arrest of Erick Kabendera, Maxence Melo and Joseph Gandye who were arrested in August 2019, while investigative journalist, Azory Gwanda, has been missing since 2017.

Compared to Kenya, however, Tanzania scores slightly high on the WJR Rule of Law Index at 0.47, but significantly low on protection for freedom of expression at 0.43. RSF (2020) ranks Tanzania comparably lower than Kenya on WPFI with a score 40.25 percent (124/180). There are suggestions that whereas Kenya provides a relatively expansive freedom of expression environment, instances of flouting the rule of law and disobeying court orders by those in power have continuously undermined the rule of law and constitutionalism. In Tanzania on the other hand, while the Rule of Law Index is comparatively slightly higher than Kenya and Uganda, the enacted legislations in the recent past appear to be less supportive of the freedoms it ought to guarantee as the letter and spirit of recently enacted laws have instituted constraints to freedom of expression and of the media. 

Civil society and human rights organisations like Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) and Tanzania Human Right Defender Coalition (THRDC) have lamented the enacted of legislations in the last few years, claiming that they have shrunk the space for freedom and independence of the media, a situation that has been backed by data. In the RSF 2020 ranking, Tanzania scores 40.25 percent on the WPFI while Freedom House ranks Tanzania as partly free with a score of 40/100 and 17/40 for political rights

Interestingly, the media in Tanzania does appear to be having more foes than allies in the Tanzanian community. Drawing from the findings of Twaweza (2017), Tanzanians seem to support government control of the media and are less in solidarity with the media compared to Kenya and Uganda. Fifty-eight percent of Tanzanians in the Twaweza survey agreed that the government should have the right to stop the media from publishing things the government considers harmful to society. Moreover, Tanzanians were found more likely to agree that too much negative reporting can harm the country (32% of citizens supported this view compared to 28% in Kenya and 24% in Uganda). This puts the community dimension into perspective and the media landscape in Tanzania within context relative to the two other East African countries. 

In a nutshell, government surveillance, draconian laws and the political environment in Tanzania that is increasingly shaping up to be repressive, portends a fairly restrictive environment for media innovations, especially innovations geared towards provision of a robust and democratic public sphere where ideas contend. With the lowest ranking on the presence of free and independent media (1/4) in the region and another low score on whether individuals are free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution (1/4) (Freedom House, 2020), even media firms that have leveraged on technology to hold the establishment accountable and provide the public with a platform to engage are finding it difficult as the culture of self-censorship has taken root in Tanzania.  

Uganda

Uganda’s situation presents a media landscape that is fairly subservient to the political and economic pressures. The unique situation in Uganda is seen in the government owned Vision Media Group empire that spans numerous print publications, five radio stations and a television station. Though commercial, Vision Media Group is essentially part of President Yoweri Museveni’s state apparatus (UNESCO/IPDC, 2018). Despite the diversity, the low advertising streams and the existence of only two major players (Nation Media Group and Vision Media Group) presents Ugandan media ecology grappling with enormous challenges in its quest to produce high quality journalism in a sustainable way.

WJP (2019) gives Uganda a score of 0.40 on the Rule of Law Index and 0.39 out of 1 on protection of freedom of expression, the lowest in East Africa. RSF (2020) scores Uganda 40.95 percent (125/180) on the World Press Freedom Index while Freedom House (2020) rates Uganda as Not Free with a score of 34/100. 

Uganda’s assessment by Freedom House puts a lot into perspective. It is not free and the dearth of freedom is clear as the lowest ranked country among the three on the World Press Freedom Index. The pathways to innovation in the media and the attendant viability is therefore fairly convoluted by the political and legal environment that criminalise journalism, especially journalists and media houses that try to independently inform the society and hold power accountable.  

Kenya Tanzania Uganda 
Freedom House 48/100 – Partly Free 40/100 – Partly Free 34/100 – Not Free
WPFI- RSF 33.72% 

Ranking 103/180

40.25% 

Ranking 124/180

40.95% 

Ranking 125/180

WJP 2019: 

Rule of law

0.45/1 0.47/1 0.39/1
WJP 2019:

Protection of FoE

0.53/1 0.43/1 0.4/1

Where do we go from here?

The national level media viability factors impact the opportunity for innovation to enhance the normative functions of the media – such as the watchdog role, surveillance of the socio-political environment and provision of a diversity of voices and a platform for divergent ideas contend. However, the findings from the national level media viability analysis indicate that despite sustained economic growth in Kenya, just like in Tanzania and Uganda, the existence of a what Ogola (2011) called a powerful and complex economic and political structure has over the years instituted an infrastructure that economically supports the media, but certainly impinges on the news media’s capability to perform it normative roles. 

In the three tiered hierarchy of DW Akademie’s indicators and dimensions, the Media Futures national level analyses look particularly at the meta and meso levels of the three countries’ respective viability scoring. To this end, a nuanced study that focuses on the micro level is imperative toward understanding the media ecosystem in totality.  The Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Media and Communications and DW Akademie are currently undertaking a micro level study, which is at the data collection stage. This study builds on this national level analysis in these three East African countries by focusing on News Media Organisations regarding five critical micro level aspects: Newsroom structure, Business resilience/organisation capacity, Ownership model, Innovation culture and Content quality. The findings will provide valuable insights on the current state of news media viability in EA news media organizations, the state of innovation culture within EA news organizations and the current state of quality of the content produced by EA news media organizations. 



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