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. 

Unflattering score

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

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.

Waning revenue

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.

Way forward

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.

About the Author

Author ProfileStephen Ssenkaaba
Stephen Ssenkaaba is an award-winning Uganda journalist. For more than 10 years, he has worked as a features writer, contributing editor and online journalist at New Vision Printing & Publishing Company Limited. He was a 2018/2019 Knight Wallace Journalism Research Fellow at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA where he worked on a research project entitled: “Inclusive online strategies for emerging newsmarkets.”

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