It’s the economy, Stupid!

James Tumusiime, the managing editor of The Observer in Kampala, was agitated when I walked in for an appointment with him recently.

He was striding around the tiny office of his biweekly newspaper, trying to reach the spokesperson of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) by cellphone.

That morning the New Vision newspaper had run an article by the NRM’s Ofwono Opondo, in which he claimed that journalists “ran amok” at a recent national conference of the party, “demanding cash” for covering the event. He said it had become standard practice for journalists to demand “money, food coupons, transport refunds and other forms of freebies” from event organisers.

Opondo said he refused to budget for journalists’ “envelopes” and had tried to “resist these merchant journalists with fair success”.

Others were not so strong, he said.

Brown envelope rife in Uganda
But it was a direct accusation that an unnamed reporter from The Observer had demanded payment on behalf of others that angered Tumusiime. He wanted to know who had been involved so that he could take action against the culprit.

The claim could be a slur on the team of three he had at the event but, if it turned out to be true, the culprit would be fired, he told me.

“Our policy is clear — zero tolerance for journalists taking bribes and plagiarism. We have built a reputation as a media house where journalists are a bit better behaved, where journalists can hold their heads high,” Tumusiime said.

But Opondo wasn’t taking calls.

Since then, I have heard that the events at the NRM conference have not been properly clarified. Journalists who were there talk about a list of all attending journalists that was drawn up by a small group. A payment of about 4-million shillings (about $1 750) was received from the party and divided among them, which caused unhappiness among some.

But the story remains unresolved and the issue continues to fester.

On my short visit to Uganda, I was told that brown-envelope journalism is rife. The euphemism that is used is “facilitation” and it is normal practice for parties, businesses and international NGOs to pay for the privilege of having journalists attend their events.

Editors and the bigger media houses discourage the practice and papers such as the government’s New Vision have taken to running announcements calling on the public not to give their journalists money.

Bodies such as the Independent Media Council of Uganda, with which I was working during this visit, have also come out strongly against the practice.

Poor media houses
But it persists, partly because of the nature of the extraordinarily rich Ugandan media landscape. The country boasts more TV channels than South Africa, a large number of independent newspapers and more than 200 small commercial radio stations broadcasting on FM.

The economic liberalisation pursued by President Yoweri Museveni in the 1990s led to the establishment of many commercial media ventures and since then there has been little consolidation.

A rare exception is New Vision, which has become clearly dominant, and now has two TV channels, five radio stations and four other newspapers in vernacular languages besides its flagship English-language daily.

Editorially, it strives for a position that is broadly supportive of its majority shareholder, the government, without toadying to it — probably the position The New Age wants to take in South Africa. New Vision’s editor told me: “We can be critical of government, but not antagonistic.”

Kenya’s Nation group is the other significant player, but most media organisations are small and struggle to survive. They operate on a shoestring, relying heavily on freelancers.

I was told that about 70% of the country’s journalists eke out a living on this basis, with a small retainer plus payment for whatever they can get into print.

It’s no wonder that they are vulnerable to brown envelopes stuffed with money.

The Ugandan media landscape illustrates a paradox — on the one hand it is rich in the number of media outlets and voices available to its citizens. But, at the same time, many media houses are poor — circulations are small, and the advertising cake in this small economy is very limited and divided among too many hungry mouths.

Journalism suffers as a result.

The Ugandan story shows that, although diversity of media is undoubtedly desirable, it does not automatically make for quality and can in fact militate against good reporting.

Professional standards and ethics — quality, in a word — cost money. This has implications for the owner of the “corner shop” kind of radio station in Uganda, who is tempted to pay journalists as little as possible, as well as for the major corporation in Johannesburg or London, cutting costs to such an extent that journalists become unable to do honest reporting.

This column was originally published in the Mail & Guardian on Nov. 19, 2010.

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