Free media is often described as the fourth estate, the gatekeeper, the whistleblower, and many more. American singer Jim Morrison once said, “whoever controls the media, controls the mind.” No wonder governments worldwide try hard to control the press. But the media itself, particularly in Uganda, faces a severe identity crisis that requires urgent action, writes guest commentator Jimmy Spire Ssentongo.
It is no exaggeration to refer to the media as the fourth arm of government – though I must emphasise that it must act independently of the government. Since media is so crucial to our lives, people will always create alternative forms of communication whenever there is a vacuum. Even under the most invasive forms of state surveillance, people will find ways of communicating whatever they want to.
The American singer, songwriter, and poet Jim Morrison once said: “Whoever controls the media controls the mind [s of people].” Hence states will always desire to influence a vibrant media or find ways of controlling it. Many regimes have also sought to establish their media, which often becomes a crucial player in shaping their desired narratives or countering unwanted truths.
But why should we be concerned about the media now? Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, several private Ugandan media houses struggled to survive. The rise of the internet, and the falling reading habits, had continually battered newspaper readership and sales. As a result, the reliance on generating revenue was increasingly left to adverts rather than sales. Yet, ironically, sales (real and perceived) still influenced the attraction of adverts.
Clamouring for government ad revenues
On the other hand, television and radio entered a cutthroat competition for advertisers due to the rapid increase in their numbers and national distribution. In a way, this was good for the public. The era when Radio Uganda, Uganda Television, and a few newspapers held a monopoly on shaping national narratives was gone. The people had a wide range of outlets to choose from. At the same time, though, media houses struggled for survival. Perhaps greed compromised many of them through business entanglements that made it difficult for them to report independently.
The Ugandan government is undoubtedly the biggest advertiser. It would be difficult for any traditional media to survive if the government starved them of adverts. Yet still, even if media houses banked on private companies, the government has a strong hand in big companies’ business/alliance choices in a polity like ours. As a result, some would shun critical media houses not to be perceived as ‘anti-government’.
Conflicts of interest
When media income mainly comes from giant company adverts, it leaves several questions on how far the media can go in independently reporting about the same companies that foot most, if not all, the media house’s bills. Moreover, it is an open secret that many private media houses struggle to pay their journalists, hence creating a breeding ground for unethical practices that further compromise the quality of reporting.
In many African countries, including Uganda, it is not unusual for reporters to ask for ‘facilitation’ or the so-called brown envelope from those whose events they cover. So how can we expect them to report fairly and objectively after being ‘facilitated’?
Another challenge that came with the liberalisation of media is the fall in reporting standards. Media experts blame competition on who breaks stories first as the main reason for this shortcoming. Social media has allowed everyone to become a reporter without journalistic or editorial qualifications. Bloggers and ‘influencers’ pull thousands onto their social media channels for news, gossip, and quick ‘analysis’.
By the time traditional media are ready to report, the news is already stale – sometimes because it is “harvested” without improvement from social media trending topics that the public has already exhausted. As a result, some media houses have had to adapt by venturing more into investigative stories less prone to time vagaries.
The burden of fact-checking and verification
The rapid increase in news sources has inadvertently increased the burden of sieving and verifying information disseminated to the public. In addition, the complex mix of truths and misinformation has made it difficult for gullible masses to tell what to take or leave.
For example, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that demanded credible information on the virus, its causes, treatment, and vaccination has been characterised by unprecedented confusion, partly occasioned by media challenges.
Anyone could wake up any day and initiate a narrative about a drug/cure, propaganda about vaccines, chaos relating to Covid protocols, and cause undue panic to the public. Such confusion conveniently feeds into the hands of governments that already wanted opportunities for tightening their grip on media and purging dissent. Censorship in the name of “fighting Covid-19” thus heightened.
Adapting to changing times
While we’ve had a high price to pay, the vast lessons should not be lost on us. One of the fundamental questions remains: How can the media fund itself without getting compromised?
It is encouraging that many media houses are learning how to innovate and adapt to changing times, especially by tapping into online revenues.
The other question is how to regulate media professionalism without undue censorship. Government’s detrimental conflicts of interest call for more actors. This necessitates a more robust civil society engagement in building and protecting media sustainability and viability.
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That’s why I think today is such a great space for us to sit back and reflect on the questions that could help us shape the kind of journalism that we want to see in our local and global community.
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Uganda fell behind, whereas Kenya improved its press freedom ranking in the Reporters Without Borders 2022 Press Freedom Index. And after years of media freedom decline, Tanzania appears to be on the right track. But overall, media freedom activists say there is still work to be done.
A free and independent press is the cornerstone of any democracy and the foundation of economic success, mostly because through our free press, we’re able to hold the leadership to account.
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