The state of the media in Uganda has been the subject of several studies and commentaries. Whether critical or favourable, all attempts to analyze the health of journalism in the East African country tend to coalesce over its contradictions, as Stephen Ssenkabaa explains.
Uganda is a country with more than 200 radio stations, about a dozen free-to-air TV stations and an array of newspapers operate.
Cartoonists, comedians and satirists somehow pull off riveting parodies of public officials. It is the same country where the government, through the media and communications regulatory body – the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) – keeps a watchful eye on media activities, jumping at every opportunity to stifle journalistic freedoms. Last year, the government through UCC introduced mandatory registration for social media influencers and other online publishers to “enable enforcement of effective use of online space” in the country. The UCC spokesperson Ibrahim Bbosa indicated that content providers would, as part of this process, pay a USD20 fee (about Ugsh 75,000) in a policy that has been widely criticized as infringing on people’s freedom of expression.
But in a country where popular social media commentator Stella Nyanzi was recently jailed for 18 months on cyber harassment charges under the Computer Misuse Act 2011 – for calling out the excesses of the government, the message is clear to all: Media freedom here is to be enjoyed cautiously.
The punitive clauses of the Computer Misuse Act 2011 dangerously hang above the heads of some of Uganda’s most prolific writers, often waiting for the next critical article to tighten the noose around their creative necks. Joseph Kabuleta, probably, one of Uganda’s finest journalists (he has since left mainstream media) was last year arrested for his critical social media commentary on what he said was President Museveni’s ploy to prepare his son Lt. Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba to take over leadership of Uganda. In the same post, he predicted the downfall of what he called “The Mafia Empire”.
Nyanzi and Kabuleta are only a fraction of at least 33 Ugandans who were either summoned and interrogated by police or charged with online communication offences between 2016 and 2018.
They are also testament to Uganda’s unflattering scorecard on the international stage. The country was ranked 125th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 Press Freedom Index, falling 28 places since 2015.
The UCC is perhaps the subtler of the gagging machines of Uganda’s media. Other government bodies have been harsher in dealing with the media. In August 2018, Reuters Ugandan journalist James Akena was roughed up by three soldiers on the street of Kampala as he photographed street protests against the arrest of opposition politician and musician Robert Kyagulanyi popularly known as ‘Bobi Wine’.
Before this event, several high-handed closures of critical media houses have been witnessed, most notably the 2013 temporary closure of the Nation Media Group’s Monitor Publications following their publication of details of a leaked letter in which a senior army officer, General David Sejusa called for investigation into allegations that President Museveni was grooming his son Muhozi Kainerugaba to take over the presidency.
NMG radio stations –KFM and Dembe FM were also closed and surrounded by police over the same story. Over the last two decades, more journalists from the Monitor – among them its founders, Charles Onyango Obbo, Wafula Oguttu and several others – were on many occasions, arrested and charged under draconian press laws.
Repressive laws have been part of Uganda’s media landscape for such a long time. From the colonial times, critical press was frowned upon by the government and those in power. After independence in 1962, the media continued its love-hate relationship with the government, exhibited through intimidation and censorship throughout the 1960s and 70s. The press did not enjoy any ‘’peace’’ in Obote’s second government from 1980-85. In 1986, Museveni took over power, promising a “fundamental change”. The media served mostly as a government mouthpiece, with a few sprinklings of critical journalism from, ironically, the government owned New Vision. And oftentimes, Munno and Weekly Topic newspapers. The liberalization of the media in the early 90s opened up the space for private FM stations, TV stations and introduced the Monitor newspaper in 1992, probably Uganda’s most critical press. The space may have widened, but restrictions remained!
New media, new challenges
The last couple of years have seen newsrooms in Uganda struggle to negotiate the transition from traditional to internet-based media. On the one hand, the internet has opened up the media space, providing more options for newsrooms to innovate and try out new business and journalism models. On the other, the transition has met with great challenges: inadequate digital infrastructure and poor journalistic skills to navigate the new media terrain, reluctance by legacy minded journalists and media managers to embrace digital journalism, and high costs of implementing feasible digital strategies. Most importantly, the internet has decimated the traditional media market share. Print media organizations have been especially hit hard. With 16.9 million Ugandans (as per the UCC figures) out of 35million total population – already connected to the internet, a huge share of the once loyal traditional media audiences has been lost to internet news sources.
According to the Ipsos Media consumption and usage habits in Uganda report for the Half Year 2018, the percentage of Ugandans reading newspapers in 7 days has reduced from 29% in 2010 to 17% in 2014 and to 8% in 2018. Nationally the number of Ugandans who reported using the internet grew from 1% to 9%. The report also indicates that newspaper readership amongst the most economically active Ugandans reduced from 50% in 2014 to 22.5% in 2018. By comparison, internet consumption in this class has gone up to 32.75%. Television is at 62.25% while Radio is at 81%.
The number of Ugandans watching TV has grown from 27% to 34%. Although the number of Ugandans listening to radio dropped 11 percentage points from 98% to 89%, radio remains a dominant platform.
In his April 2019 analysis, Muhereza Kyamutetera, a communication expert reports falling revenues for Uganda’s leading newspapers; The New Vision, Bukedde and Monitor Publications Limited. Citing a 12-year analysis he conducted from reports by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (South Africa), Muhereza observes that: “While combined circulation of three of Uganda’s leading dailies (The New Vision, Daily Monitor and Bukedde) grew by 4.3% from 74,862 copies in 2007 to 78,114 copies, minus Bukedde (a luganda daily), the two English dailies (Daily Monitor and The New Vision) lost 28.2% of their circulation- from 59,279 to 42,193 copies.”
Weekend newspapers, he says, lost 55.6% of their circulation from a combined total of 59,897 copies in 2007 to 26,560 copies in December 2018.
“Monitor Publications Limited, the publishers of Daily Monitor and Sunday Monitor took a bigger fall. Daily Monitor lost 34% of its circulation, from 25,700 copies in 2007 to 16,941 in 2018 while Sunday Monitor saw 58.1% of their readership disappear – from 25,531 copies to 10,689 copies. Copies sold by The New Vision have fallen by 24.8% from 33,579 copies to 25,252 copies while Sunday Vision has lost 53% of its circulation- from 34,366 copies to 15,871 copies.”
Following this trend, he says, the next five years could be harder.
The impact of all this is showing on overall turnover and profitability. As well as quality of journalism.
Newsrooms for instance are unable to attract and sustain highly skilled journalists to produce thorough and authoritative journalism that the public requires. The resources to invest in investigative journalism have also shrunk, resulting in poor quality and shallow journalism. Because of this, the public’s trust in print media to produce quality, well researched and reliable journalism has reduced.
The situation looks grim for the media until newsrooms embrace innovation, take up digital storytelling and forge workable business models. Solutions journalism that seeks to address the needs of the public will go a long way in winning back the lost public trust in the media. And if newsrooms find ways of monetizing this kind of journalism, the way New Vision has started with Harvest Money festivals where farmers are provided with key information to improve their yields, or the Seeds of Gold initiative by the Monitor- the future looks tricky.
Mohammed Hammie is not your typical reporter. In 2019, the young Tanzanian swapped from being a regular journalist to media for community empowerment and has since specialised in telling stories about the human right to access clean drinking water, particularly in rural areas.
The theses dwelt on thematic areas in Kenya’s media landscape, from solutions journalism, content analysis of the coverage of Covid-19 as well as data smog in the newsrooms, which the findings show is having a devastating effect on print journalists.
The study calls for solutions to structural, political, and societal conditions that jeopardize the future of media as a viable business and a source of high-quality journalism in East Africa
There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has altered our lives in unimaginable ways. Economies are bleeding. It has disrupted learning; millions have lost their jobs, while many others contend with reduced salaries. Yet, amidst the chaos and disruption, journalists – also hugely affected – have remained steadfast to their cause to tell stories of the pandemic. Some of them narrated their experiences to EAST site’s writer Isaac Swila.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the technological shifts have caused severe consequences to today’s press. However, Prof George Nyabuga says the writing has long been on the wall, yet many chose to bury their heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich.
Ever since 170 journalists from Kenya’s Standard Group were made redundant in 2020, media experts argue that convergence of business processes in the media industry is an inevitable and necessary step. The term convergence has dominated media houses for years. But what does it mean and why is it crucial for the future of journalism in the region?
The digital and social media experience has disrupted the media industry in unprecedented ways. Gone are the days when media houses could solely rely on revenues generated from the sale of content, for example, newspapers. Kenya’s Standard Media Group understood the need to adapt to the ‘new digital newsroom’ and embarked on a three-year- restructuring programme, but the change is not without challenges as Peter Oduor found out
Kenya’s leading newspapers – The Nation, Star, and The Standard, recently set up paywalls on their online content. Though some readers are complaining, the uptake has been impressive. Senior editors who spoke to EAST Site’s writer, Isaac Swila, insist the paywall is the future.
What do Kenya’s post-election violence, Sudan’s protests that toppled President Omar al-Bashir, and the Arab Spring have in common? The audience played a crucial role in informing the world where journalists were restricted in one way or the other. Today, direct audience engagement in the news cycle has brought far-reaching changes to the media industry.
The belief that journalism can make the world a better place is why the Media Challenge Initiative exists. This aspiration has become more evident during Covid-19, where journalists are at the frontlines of fighting the pandemic across the globe.
Ten years ago, an ambitious and daring Giles Muhame started an online platform at Makerere University. The platform’s main idea was to bring news in real-time. Initially, the online platform struggled as the audience was still rigid, preferring traditional modes of news consumption such as radio, print, and television.
One of the most significant impacts of the pandemic has been the dramatic shift in the global digital landscape and digital business. Africa’s media industry needs vision, innovation, transformation, collaboration, and adaptability to develop agile business models.
Kenya’s media still struggles with undue political interference as evidenced by sporadic harassment from government, coupled with economic constraints that have recently been amplified by the effects of the ongoing global pandemic
Debunk Media, a platform for explanatory journalism wants young Africans to understand how big events in their environments affect them and why those events are important to them… It wants to show them the little dots and the invisible lines that join these events.
The changing dimensions and presentation of the challenges facing women in the newsroom and the media as a whole call for a dynamic approach by women, gender and general human rights activists.
Almost all newsrooms, big and small, have had their operations severely affected by the devastating disruption wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic leading to loss of hundreds of jobs. Worse still, revenue sources for broadcast and print publications have shrunk as businesses collapse.
Job cuts, pay cuts, content reduction and closures – that is what many media outlets are currently facing. Some blame digitalization and the coronavirus pandemic. But could it be that they got their priorities wrong in the first place?
Freedom of the media is the cornerstone of a just and democratic society to promote socio-economic and political developments even though Eastern African countries fashion the independence for the sake of complying with international obligations.
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.
In open societies where democracy flourish, the media plays a critical watchdog role by not only putting into check but also questioning the excesses of the government. Sadly, in Tanzanian media space these pillars seem to lack.
While solutions journalism as a news philosophy presents many opportunities for the strengthening of journalism practice in Kenya and by extension Africa; it is certainly not a quick fix.
Just like New York Times adjusted to digital disruption, Covid-19 has presented an opportunity for local media houses to analyze the emerging trends and audience behaviour to come up with innovative ways of generating revenues.