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.

One of the newsrooms in Kenya

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.

About the Author

Author ProfileJimmy Spire Ssentongo
Jimmy Spire Ssentongo is an Associate professor of Ethics and Identity Studies at Uganda Martyrs University and a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Makerere University. He holds a PhD in Humanistic Studies

Similar articles

Enact policies that guarantee education for all

As Form One students settle into a new life in secondary school, this has also been a period of reflection. We have read tear-jerking and heart-warming stories of determined students who overcame many odds to get an education and how well-wishers came together in their aid.

RSF 2022 Press Freedom Index: A mixed bag for East Africa

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.

Good journalism does not come cheap

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.

Opinion: Rethinking media houses revenue streams in the Digital era

To align with the changing times and stay relevant in the business, media houses are challenged to rethink their strategy and to adopt and understand obstacles and challenges they face towards rethinking and exploring alternative sources of revenue and on developing the digital strategy.

Hamasa Media Group: Tanzanian innovators with a solution to organisation management

A team of young, Tanzanian tech-savvy communication professionals is dreaming big. It seeks to usher a new dawn in media business management in Tanzania by optimising employee output and offering consultancy to media businesses on how they can operate with a minimal budget but still attain their goals.

The legal challenges facing East Africa’s bloggers and influencers 

Bloggers and influencers have become an integral component of information sourcing across East Africa. The public uses blogs, privately run websites and social networks to crowdsource information from social networks, which they then publish and distribute. But it’s not all rosy for this group of content makers.

Afyatoon: How two medics are transforming lives through story-telling

The chances of meeting a medical graduate practising journalism are usually very slim, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. But two Tanzanian physicians have broken away from that norm by inventing a start-up called Afyatoon. It uses visual art technology to tell compelling medical stories. They narrate to the EAST Site their experience and share their vision for the future.

Five astounding findings from the MCK state of Kenya’s Media Survey

Did you know that in 2021 Kenyans watched less TV and spent more time on social media? Or that some Kenyans rely on family, friends, or even social media icons and bloggers as a source of news and information? These are some of the conclusions highlighted in the 2021 State of the Media Survey conducted by the Media Council of Kenya (MCK).

Uganda’s media strives to reinvent itself post Covid-19

The effects of the Covid pandemic continue to change the world in ways we had not imagined possible. The media is going through a painful transformation to keep up with changing production, distribution and consumption habits. In East Africa, Uganda’s Media Challenge Initiative (MCI) recently hosted a panel discussion on Media Viability comprising experienced journalists from Television, Radio, Print and Online/Digital media to address lessons learned from the pandemic. East Site’s Moses Mutente attended the panel and compiled this article.

Opinion: Africa must revamp journalism education to include media ownership

In this commentary, Uganda-based journalist Caleb Okereke shares deep personal insights into why media schools in East Africa must rethink their curriculum. He stresses the need for trainers to begin teaching media ownership to better equip journalism students for the dynamic and cutthroat job market by taking us through his journey as a journalism student and media owner.

Dwindling trust in media raises concerns ahead of Kenya’s General Election

For the second year running, a survey commissioned by the Media Council of Kenya shows that the trust level in Kenyan media has nosedived, raising fundamental questions on how media will play its watchdog role more so with landmark elections set for August 9. EAST Site writer Isaac Swila explores.

Opinion: Media needs credibility to survive the pandemic and digital transformation

Legacy media is currently caught between a rock and a hard place — the Covid pandemic and the rise and proliferation of social media has hit revenues hard. Some say this could signal the end of news as we used to know it. However, Ugandan decorated journalist Ernest Bazanye believes the industry will survive and thrive, but not without a fight.

Invest in journalists’ verification skills to help curb disinformation, expert Redondo advises

World over, disinformation is a virus that continues to permeate newsrooms giving media managers and journalists a headache on how to deal with it. Dr. Myriam Redondo,  a newsroom trainer in digital verification and associate professor in International Relations (PhD) explains how to tackle the virus in an engagement with EAST Site writer Isaac Swila.

Opinion: Never lose sight of your vision when fundraising 

No one sits down to write proposals only to seek money. There’s an idea, a vision, an important goal, the need for impact, and last but not least, the need for change.

Media faulted over its coverage of people living with disabilities 

According to the World Health Organisation there are between 60-80million people with disabilities in Africa and over 1 billion in the world, many of whom live under deplorable conditions owing to societal myths.

How Kenyan journalists are preparing for the 2022 General Election 

Kenyan voters will go to the polls on August 7, 2022, to elect new leaders. As expected, the media is burning the midnight oil, trying to develop strategies to cover the polls. But how prepared are they?

Tanzania: Striving for women digital inclusion

Tanzania has a massive digital gender gap. As a result, it is unlikely to hear stories about successful Tanzanian women, either in leadership or the media.

Three reasons why a Human Centred Design is necessary for innovation

Ultimately, HCD is a toolbox containing multiple tools you can pick out, show your team how to use them, and ensure it becomes best practice

Meet the Tanzanian journalist passionate about the right to clean water and sanitation

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.

Kenya’s Media Council defends move seeking journalists quit before vying for election

According to the MCK Chief Executive Officer, David Omwoyo, journalists eyeing political posts should be subjected to the same rules that apply to civil servants. That is to leave office six months to elections. But that’s not the only requirement.

AKU students media research spotlights hits and misses of Kenya’s media

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.

Media Viability Study East Africa: Five interesting findings you should know

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

Covid-19: Kenyan journalists go behind the story

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.

OPINION: Modern journalism faces an existential threat

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.

East Africa’s media powerhouses use convergence in business to stay afloat 

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 changing face of Kenyan newsrooms – a case of Standard Media Group

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

Paywall: A challenging but promising business model for Kenya’s news media 

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.

How audience participation has changed the media 

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.

MCI Uganda: Grooming journalists for the 21st century job market

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.

‘Future of journalism is video’: Chimpreports founder Muhame

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.