The Ugandan press is beginning to pay more attention to issues of development, such as poverty, public health, environmental changes. But it takes a strong editor to publish articles on this subject, rather than high politics or celebrity news, writes Richard M. KavumaDuring the Polis seminar last week on whether the media can do development, Julius Mucunguzi spoke of the increasing realisation by journalists in Uganda that they can report on “the unsexy” issues and still capture readers’ attention.
Mucunguzi, a communications officer at the Commonwealth Secretariat, was a respected political reporter in Uganda before quitting the newsroom for his current job, so he knows how uninterested journalists were, and still largely are, in reporting development, preferring instead to cover the big political stories.
But Mucunguzi said the way in which a series of articles on the millennium development goals (MDGs), published in Uganda in The Weekly Observer newspaper in 2006, were received and recognised in and outside the country, had led journalists to take another look at reporting development issues.
The articles won six Ugandan and international awards, including the 2006 UN Foundation Award for Development Reporting and the 2007 CNN Multichoice African Journalist of the Year award.
The MDG series may have inspired a surge of interest in reporting on development, but how this is realised depends on the editors, and how challenged they feel to do more to address the big questions facing the country.
The MDG series was assigned by one such editor and edited by others after him at The Weekly Observer. Handing me the assignment, Kevin Aliro, who died in November 2005, before the articles were published, had lamented that achieving the MDGs was critically important to the majority of impoverished Ugandans, but we in the media had not covered them comprehensively. This meant any debate on the goals was kept in the meeting rooms of UN agencies and government offices.
But it is not easy for editors, as The Weekly Observer Managing Editor, James Tumusiime, told me on the phone from Kampala this week.
“I think newspapers are torn between giving people what they want and what they need to know, because the readership here tends to prefer political stories,” he said. However, he added that development stories are finding more space in the papers, even if they don’t make the front pages.
I would agree. Compared to when I wrote my first newspaper article 13 years ago next month, I would say there are more stories about poverty, public health, the environment and other development issues in the Ugandan press. Of course, the outlets have increased, but so has the focus on these issues.
According to Tumusiime, one reason for this change is the frustration with government on issues such as poverty reduction and public services. There is also increasing focus on the non-governmental sector, which gets a lot of money from donors and carries out work that is, arguably, the job of the government. It, therefore, attracts attention. More editors are now ready to publish a piece exploring these issues, even if they do not think it will sell any more papers.
“I keep telling people that the most prominent set of articles The Weekly Observer has done were those MDG pieces, but they were never on the front pages. So there are those things that will not necessarily sell more copies, but are satisfying to do as journalists.”
It is a point shared – with some scepticism – by Daniel Kalinaki, Managing Editor at The Daily Monitor, Kampala’s leading independent daily. In a country accustomed to corruption and neglect by those in power, it is not only cheaper, it also generates more interest for a newspaper to report about a musician’s latest car, as opposed to hard issues like poverty. And with the pressure to increase circulation, Kalinaki says, it takes a strong editor to try not to worry about the figures.
But he believes that in a country like Uganda, development issues might benefit from the threat the newspaper industry is under from the internet, radio and television. Papers will need to think more about how they tell the bigger stories that affect people’s lives.
“It is now clear to the newspapers that business as usual has not brought them the necessary credibility and relevance they want,” says Kalinaki, whose paper recently ran a series on Uganda’s ailing public health facilities. “So they have to be innovative. And in a third world country like Uganda where development is still the issue, we have to find ways to engage with the readers.”
He says he is seeing more reports on development, but he hopes the reporting can become more systematic to allow the issues to be put into context. The benefits of this would be twofold: the articles would focus on the people, which would make the coverage more engaging, and it would reduce the apparent gap between development issues and high politics.
If we capture the imagination of the audience and highlight the responsibility – or lack of it – of the politicians, then we will be on the right track.
This article was first published on the Guardian (UK) website (www.guardian.co.uk/katine)