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May the last journalist not switch off the lights, please!

The media industry is experiencing a consistent exodus of talent. The most recent departure is The Observer’s editor Richard Kavuma. 

Because he was a ‘big drum’ in the industry, there have been several column inches about him. Many more ‘small drums’ continue to leave just after a few years. Although we never read about their departures, the damage to the industry is registered. 

For almost the same reasons, I left The Independent just after a year.  Editor Joseph Were had invested quite a bit of resources in me as he looked at a potential sub-editor. With a few final touches away, I hit the exit button. 

If things remain the way they are, the departures will only continue.  And as we mourn these departures – of both junior and senior journalists – our diagnosis of the problem is right, but we seem to have no cure.

Identifying the problem as small salaries, journalist Daniel Kalinaki attributed the failure for media houses to pay their journalists well to “the relatively small size of the market and the economy,” which makes it difficult for “media houses to train, pay and retain their best journalists” who end up going “often to better-paying, less-stressful, communications jobs.”

As a prescription, Kalinaki suggests that “citizens must understand the need for good journalism, and be willing to pay for it.”

He continues that citizens should be “willing to pay for good journalism and good journalism will pay for good journalists to stay in the newsroom.” 

It is difficult to explain what Kalinaki meant with “citizens must understand the need for good journalism and be willing to pay for it.”

Did he mean to suggest more “citizens” should buy newspapers? How do you ensure that?  Did he mean to suggest citizens should fundraise for newspapers through car-washes and runs? How sustainable would this be? 

Seemingly overwhelmed, Kalinaki chastened himself with a challenge to his readers “to figure out how best to keep talent within the newsroom,” insisting that citizens ought to do something.

There are two things we can pick from Kalinaki’s rather succinct articulation of the plight of Uganda’s media industry. First, Kalinaki reminds us that citizens are central to this fight as good journalism is important for development since “few societies have progressed without the free flow of ideas, and [without] freedom of thought, expression and the media.”

Second, by noting that departures rob the media of “experience and institutional memory, weaken the quality of [Ugandan] journalism and keeps the market small,” Kalinaki tells us that sustained good journalism has potential to grow/expand the market and, perhaps, then, media houses (perhaps through more copy sales?) will be able to offer big enough salaries and retain their staff.

It is evident that Kalinaki views both the problem and solution as coming from the market. Small market, media is suffering; big market, media will flourish.  It is my contention that subjecting media to the whims of the market in sub-Saharan Africa is actually the problem.

Neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s put everything in the [free] market. The government stopped offering support to farmers, universities, health institutions and companies, subjecting everything to the market forces of demand and supply.

The problem with this was that several African societies had not fully developed to a stage where the market could sustain growth.  Indeed, as several studies showed, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund pushed these reforms onto the African continent oblivious of context.

In an effort to fight communist Russia as part of the Cold War, notions of free market economies operational in highly developed capitalist and industrialized societies in Europe and North America were imposed on largely agrarian and semi-illiterate Africa.

Very quickly, farms crumbled, businesses collapsed, healthcare and education deteriorated as the market could not sustain them. Indeed, over the years, governments have, albeit timidly, moved away from these reforms: Operation Wealth Creation and Entandikwa schemes in Uganda are good examples.

We need to fit the media into this analysis: with poorly educated folks, subsisting on the land, and zero industrialization, the market in Uganda cannot sustain the media. If the media – both critical and pro-government – is good for development, then the public has to pay for it through the public purse, not through the market.

It is no surprise that the New Vision does fairly well as it gets a great deal of support from government. Now, in semi-democratic regimes across the continent, it would be daydreaming to expect governments to put money in critical news outlets without influencing the narrative.

It would be risking Daily Monitor and The Observer to the vampires in government if they were to receive government subsidies.

This predicament notwithstanding, we need to start seeing the media – especially critical media –as a public good which ought to be taken, at least partly, away from the market, and funded from the public purse. We can discuss the historical, implementation and policy details on another day.

The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.


0 #1 Akot 2017-05-17 19:22
What is more sad is that Ugandans have not taken advantage of The Observer, to UNITE & throw museveni out, as the rest of the world with much less talents as The Observer journalists have done!

I posted a few times in BBC before changing for The Observer & I do not regret it, except I am disappointed: Ugandans have not taken advantage offered & do not even know the chance they have with The Observer!

If S.Africa has The Observer, J.Zuma would have been throw out by now!
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