EU, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Konrad-Adanaeur, Norwegian Agency for Development, DGF, Open Society, UK-AID, USAID, and our several other development partners, please hear my cry. [I have enveloped this letter and sending it over for more direct conversation].
We need to have an honest conversation on your support for democracy, environment, good governance, human rights, and development issues in Uganda. My ambition is to challenge you to reconsider your funding models, and centre the media as a major ingredient in the development and democratic discourse. Before I get into it, I will tell a recent story as background to my appeal.
Early this year, a team of enthusiastic young journalists, Canary Mugume, Joyce Bagala and Thomas Kitimbo of NBS TV gave life to the story of human trafficking that has become endemic in Uganda.
On a shoe-string budget, they went to eastern Uganda and returned with harrowing stories about children sold on the open market for $14. As you observed yourselves, and by the journalists’ own admission, the investigation is incomplete for among other reasons, resources.
But as incomplete as it was, this story provoked a parliamentary sitting the week that followed. Local conversation on human trafficking piqued: on 24 May, an ActionAid-funded panel met in Kansanga to discuss the subject with more empirical [journalistic] material. International attention came as OZY, and American media outlet, investigated the story further and told us trafficked children were ferried to the Middle East for organ transplants.
Not too long ago, an online outlet Chimp Reports reported the infamous handshake, a story of humongous corruption. So were reports on torture chambers euphemised as “safe-houses.”
The point I am making is that it is only investigative reporting that has enabled the country – parliament and citizens – see and debate stories affecting their lives. But here is the painful part: For especially reasons of resources, (a) the media industry is losing its most experienced hands at a frightening rate; (b) journalists are unable to exhaust and fully report on the stories (c) those who try are vulnerable to being compromised because news subjects are resourced enough to exploit vulnerability.
Unfortunately, you have focused your funding-support into NGOs and civil society organisation, which ironically, often pick cue from media stories for their work. It is painful that you have left the original generators of content on their own – or to the perils of the market in a rather agrarian economy.
In his book, Human Rights NGOs in East Africa, Prof. Makau Mutua noted NGOs and CSOs spend 80 percent of their time inside their offices manipulating budgets and generating accountabilities. In fact, even when CSOs and NGOs research and generate content, it is shared amongst themselves and remains mostly untidy and unreadable.
Without seeming to throw NGOs and CSOs under the bus [and consequently accused of envying those who are eating], for they also play a crucial but different type of role, I want to suggest a model that accommodates both, is more precise, and broadens the reach of your intervention.
It is possible to establish funding categories tailored for media houses. Media could apply for grants and sponsorships demanding of applicants to generate and publish content on the topics such as human rights, the oil sector, gender, the environment, youth engagement, constitutionalism, corruption, democracy, and development in sustained ways.
Broadcast media would be challenged to organise citizen-debates so as to keep the general public involved. Take for example, a three-year, half a million dollar grant to a locally owned media house would enable it to pay a living wage on time, motivate its foot-soldiers, invest in better equipment, and ably retain their most experienced hands.
The edge that media has over NGOs and CSOs is that the results are guaranteed, and will be packaged in ways that are easily accessible to the public. Let me conclude my appeal with the timeless words of US president, Thomas Jefferson.
Speaking on 16 January 1787 about the freedom [and support] of the press, Jefferson remarked that the basis of [their] government, as a democracy [and driver of development], was to reflect the opinion of the people. He summed up, rather poetically, that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
In those priceless words, Jefferson emphasized, among other things, the absolute importance of media in the (democratic and developmental) life of any country.
I will be waiting to hear from you.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.