Sunday, October 16, 2011

My views on the state of the media in Uganda

It should scare you when an essay kicks off with a disclaimer – like this one does. That, ordinarily, should make you question, even doubt, whatever is coming afterwards. So here goes.

I am not the best qualified person to give authoritative info on Uganda’s media. I am only an anonymous pony, a foot soldier just getting my footing in the war. But the media pays my bills. I have been a part of it since March 31, 2008, when still a university student. But in that time, I have come to a few conclusions, one or two deductions about the industry that employs me that I feel I have to share.

Delivering a verdict on the state of Uganda’s media feels like a doctor, who, upon having discovered that their patient has contracted a deadly disease, is faced with the monumental task of delivering the bad news. The case of Uganda’s media is that of a miscarriage, a pregnancy, which was probably the subject of massive anticipation, but which is just not carried on to fruition. It’s a state of arrested development, a theatre where big dreams are brutally extinguished at the worst, and, permanently maimed for many others. Don’t get me wrong, this is not the case for all who join the media. There are many exceptions of course, but they are only that, exceptions.

Ugandan journalists, for anybody that only relates with them through their products (newspapers and radio/TV shows), will strike you as the sophisticated part of society, as quite modern, as learned, as intelligent, and no doubt, a bunch of well paid individuals. Well, over the last two years, the biggest lesson that I have learnt is that nothing, absolutely nothing, is ever as it seems. And take it from me, the people behind the media you consume are the farthest things from what they make you think they are when you read their stories or watch them on TV.

A classic tale, of a classic Ugandan newsroom, goes this way.

A young individual, full of life and promise, will walk into a newsroom, probably, straight out of university. Some even come earlier. They are bright and up to scratch. They want to pursue a career in journalism. They go ahead and put in the long hours, striving hard to master their craft. Two months, six months, one year down the road. But although they have worked hard and even done a few influential stories, they have hardly been offered a job. They still survive on the pay-per-story format, which is usually, not enough to even pay for rent, let alone transport and feeding.

Others will be luckier; they will get offers of employment. But so bad are the terms of employment for journalists that as soon as they check their pay check, they immediately realise that they can’t survive on the job entirely, and that other means will have to be devised, to make ends meet.

Those who fail to get jobs but value themselves will after a year, opt out. The financial realities of the day, the need to develop one self, the need to grow personally (date and get married), bleeping on the young journalists’ radar like a crime scene, will send them packing into the Public Relations and marketing worlds.

Those that get jobs will mark a date on the calendar, not more than three years away, as the exit date. The plan becomes that they stay in journalism, just long enough to make a name, if they are lucky, or, make contacts, and then go on to bigger things, like job placements in the NGO world – now that is a stinker.

It is those that don’t value themselves much, or those who cannot even compete for jobs elsewhere because they are first and foremostly, incompetent, that will stay in the newsroom, even if they are not offered jobs. Their means of survival will turn into handouts by publicity seeking organisations and individuals, because what the companies they work for pays them is so miniscule. And the newsrooms are filled to the brim with such individuals.

Those that get employed but make their minds up to stay for just about two or three years, end up killing the mentoring culture in newsrooms. After three years reporting in a field, one is then starting to have their finger on that field’s pulse – but that is exactly when they choose to sign out, right when they are starting to become authorities in their field.

And so it is that right as soon as a newspaper has got a reporter they can trust on court reporting matters, that reporter disappears into thin air. The newspaper then has to look out for a young but intelligent reporter to nurture in the field. The young reporter, probably straight out of university, thus comes into a newsroom and is straight away thrown into the deep blue end of the sea, expected to deliver the kind of court stories that experienced reporters deliver. The reporter gets no mentoring. They have nobody to introduce them to sources. He learns the hard way. By the time they learn the hard bits of court reporting, the newspaper has suffered enough blunders, enough cases of misquoting, defamation and missed out on enough stories, due to the lack of an experienced hand on the desk. And no doubt, as soon as this reporter has mastered the craft, and made a name for themselves, they sign out too, and the cycle goes around again.

The biggest effect that poor pay has had on Ugandan journalism is the low quality of its products. You can see it in every edition of newspapers and broadcast news. The overwhelming number of typos, the lack of depth in stories, the lack of context and background on simple stories, to mention but a few.

It is not only reporters that are paid poorly. Editors too, though paid a little more, are paid such inconsequential figures; they make a young reporter see no reason for sticking in journalism for the next 10 years, with a slight hope that they will one day become Managing Editor. With many good journalists having fled the industry, media houses are left with a mass of incompetent infantrymen, with only a few shining stars.

The only way to earn more as a journalist in Uganda is probably to become editor. That, therefore, becomes the one goal for any reporter who joins a newsroom, if they are to stay there. Few, if any, look forward to becoming accomplished writers. No, they want to edit, because that’s where the money is. So, a reporter, when offered a job, will right then start counting the days to when they will become editor. Editing positions in the newsroom thus become a toy for company politics as different individuals fight or are favourably seconded for such posts.

It is also seen as a way of rewarding good reporters. So, the few good reporters that the industry has are offered desk jobs as editors, in turn ridding the company of that indivual’s writing services. Desks kill talent, especially writing talent. So, Ugandan newsrooms become a case of some bright editors, and many incompetent reporters. It is reporters who deliver the news, not editors, hence the low quality in some of the media products we consume. But not all editors are good. Some are even more incompetent than the reporters they supervise, and probably just got into their positions as a result of company politicking.

The other threat to journalism, as a result of poor pay, is bribery. There is the usual bribery that has unfortunately become so part of the media, it is now almost acceptable – the facilitation and transport refund kind of thing. But there is the monster, where journalists, both editors and reporters, take (usually massive) bribes in order to kill a story or cover favourably a company or individual. At times, journalists take the initiative and extort monies from the people they cover.  And this has made journalism in Uganda one big joke.

Media companies in Uganda, although faced with many difficulties, do indeed make enough money to pay their journalists better. But the better pay checks are saved for the top honchos, the paper and pencil pushers who do not even know beans how to write something as simple as an intro. They will claim that the pay is poor because circulation figures in Uganda are down, hence low advertising, hence low revenues. And yet TV and radio workers under their control, with massive listenership and viewership, are still paid poorly, if not worse than newspaper workers. You also sense a failure on the part of business managers in media houses as far as making good business out of the journalism, is concerned.

When it comes to the part of low public interest in media, especially newspapers is concerned, that is a case in point. Uganda suffers a terribly low interest in reading by its populace. This has been made worse by the low quality school products, thanks to the Universal Primary Education System (UPE). Uganda’s education system produces students who can pass exams, but not students who understand anything or who can think through anything.

The result has been a society that lacks depth, which does not want to be bothered by anything that requires much thought and which does not appreciate news about the same. UPE in particular, has created a sort of populace that is just literate enough to read and write, but not intellectually think through issues and question them. It is for that reason the newspaper circulation figures are so low in this country.

Here is the future of Ugandan journalism as I see it. Up market papers that tackle the tough issues of the day, will struggle to have circulation growth, simply because the masses are not interested in the tough issues of the day. It’s a paradox, right? I know. The UPE educated populace we have will have an interest just enough to read the salacious and trivial, but not the effect of the rise of the dollar against the shilling on their livelihood.

And that is where the case of Bukedde newspaper comes in. Of all Ugandan newspapers, it is only this salacious Luganda tabloid that has a consistently up ward looking curve of circulation figures. It’s currently doing slightly above 30,000 copies per day, more than half it was doing a decade ago.

Bukedde has so many favouring factors. There is a large section of the population who are simply interested in sleaze and nothing intellectual, who have gone to school but only so that they read out the sleaze in the paper, and finally that Bukedde is not threatened by the internet. While the main English newspapers will definitely lose a few hard copy readers to the internet, Bukedde will lose very few if any. The paper’s most readers rarely go to the internet to read a newspaper, and will purchase the hard copy. Also, the paper appeals to the larger population, the informal workers whose monies are undocumented, the unskilled labour, the taxi conductors, the vendors, the traders in the arcades, the fishermen, the small scale farmers, and many of that kind. It is now a matter of months before Bukedde becomes the best selling newspaper in the country. And when it reaches that point, it could hold onto it for long.

Let’s go back to our troubles-in-journalism talk. If you are not a journalist, but want to one day put a face to many of the names you read in the newspapers, just go to the nearest hotel, hopefully, it will be holding a conference of some kind, to which journalists are of course, always invited. Plan your journey so that you arrive at lunch time, and head straight to the restaurant. And it is there that you will find them, first in the queue for food, and then heaping their plates with spoon-loads of food like it is the last supper.

But, please don’t leave yet. Hang around a little longer to watch them scuffle for monies from the publicist who invited them to the event. If by the end of your sojourn to the hotel, you still want to consume news, then your stomach can handle quite a lot.

Those two examples will tell you a lot about the state of the media here. It is a poorly paying profession, and because of that, is crowded with quarks, whose real living is earned from the payrolls of the companies they write about, not those they write for. You will find journalists, who are supposed to be the very finest in the business, selling their soul for a few hundred thousand dollars, to sing the praises of foreign princes. It’s an absurd reality.

And yet it is not all gloom about journalism here. A few journalists have come to enjoy a very fulfilling career, free of kick backs and bribery. There are journalists who have chosen to do the profession for passion’s sake, and have stayed put, despite the opportunities to go and pencil-push in some air-conditioned NGO office. The fact that we still have media that keeps the state in check somewhat, that still offers a platform for informed debate and public discussion on the big issues of the day, is such a huge feat. All is not lost, but all is not well either.

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