Making sense of my exit from Daily Monitor–and the poll

Due to the massive distortions coupled with spin that has been spurn around my exit from the Daily Monitor, I have decided to set the record straight, especially in relation to the opinion poll the newspaper published on Monday January 12, 2015 and my role in it. Besides explaining what really happened, I also think I owe this to the many journalists both in Daily Monitor and outside it, who have been left confused over these events.

Background

My tenure: I joined the Daily Monitor in 2008 as an assistant chief sub editor. Previously, I had worked as a sub editor in the New Vision. In 2009, I was promoted to a deputy chief sub editor and a year later named chief sub editor. In May 2013, I was named managing editor for daily editions, a position I was confirmed to three months later.

As a tradition, Daily Monitor carries out opinion polls in the period leading up to elections or when political developments in the country call for the need to gauge the mood among the public. It is something the newspaper has done over the years.

It was for that reason that in late April 2014, a heads of department meeting decided that Daily Monitor conducts a poll to gauge the political mood, especially in the light of events following the Kyankwanzi Resolution in February. I also need to point out that Mr Malcolm Gibson, the executive editor, who was about a month old in that job, requested me to oversee this process.

That is how I came to lead negotiations on behalf of Daily Monitor when we finally contacted Research World International, a research firm led by Dr Wakida, to conduct the poll. The discussions emerged because the civil society had already engaged Dr Wakida to do this poll yet the questions were very similar to what DM also wanted to test. Dr Wakida proposed that DM could split the cost with the civil society that were working under some loose grouping. Their contact person was Mr Job Kijja.

After a series of meetings (which I chaired mainly in DM boardroom) which involved Job, myself, Dr Wakida, Aaron Aguma (DM marketing manager), a lady called Liz also from our marketing department and Mr George Rioba, DM finance chief, we agreed on costs to be borne by both parties. Mr Alex Asiimwe, the managing director, would occasionally come into these meetings.

The other contest was the fact that civil society wanted the findings disseminated to all media houses while DM wanted exclusivity for obvious commercial reasons. We struck a middle point where we agreed that DM would have exclusive rights over some questions but importantly it would also be the first media house to break the news of the poll before others could have the chance.

All went according to plan until something happened. On the Monday of the premiere publication, not only DM had the poll. The Red Pepper too had snippets of it! In our discussions, we had emphasized that DM would have to publish the poll first before any other media house would follow.  Mr Asiimwe demanded answers from Dr Wakida. This would later affect the commitment by DM to pay Research World International.

The results of the poll basically indicated that President Museveni had an edge over his opponents, with 54% of sampled respondents saying he should be re-elected in 2016. This particular story was run by Daily Monitor on Tuesday, May 20, 2014.

As is with most polls, some parties will feel cheated. That was the general impression we got as we sought responses from the opposition. They felt the poll was inaccurate, had downplayed their popularity and some even accused the pollster of being compromised. There was one catch to it though. Dr Wakida is a card-holding member of the FDC and is a delegate from one of the districts in Bugwere. To accuse him of being manipulated by the NRM was a bit of a stretch.

The Red Pepper incident, however, and some of these protestations pushed the Daily Monitor to consider contacting a second pollster especially on some of the key questions around the popularity of leading politicians. This too was agreed in one of the Monday heads of department meetings.

IPSOS poll

The other most credible pollster, at least from what I gathered, was Ipsos-Synovate. Around June or thereabouts, Mr Asiimwe, Mr Aguma and Liz contacted Ipsos.  From what I established, Ipsos was actually moving to the field already to conduct a general survey (this is usually a survey that seeks information on an array of things unlike the type we did with RWI which was politics only). In this case usually, clients are also restricted to a few questions since there are many fields of information being sought.

Daily Monitor asked Ipsos to ring-fence a particular question again on the politics which it did not want shared with other media houses. Unfortunately, when the findings were shared, New Vision was inadvertently given the results and they were quick to publish before Daily Monitor.

Make-good deal

With this snag, Ipsos offered a make-good deal to Daily Monitor. That is how I came back into the picture. Virginia on Monday October 27, 2014 at 4:56pm, wrote an email to Mr Asiimwe (copied to her workmates James Kakande and Rose Aliguma) indicating that they were going out to conduct another poll and DM would be allowed to load 3-5 questions “at Ipsos cost”.

The following day at 9:13am, Mr Asiimwe responded to Virginia, in an email copied to me and Mr Malcolm Gibson. I will quote it verbatim.

“Dear Virginia, Thanks for the offer. I am forwarding this to our editorial colleagues to formulate the questions and get back to you within the week.”

I took note and walked to Mr Gibson to alert him to this email. Like he did in the first case, he asked me to handle.

However, the matter went off my radar for a while until about the second week of November. I then sent an email to the political affairs editor, Mr Henry Ochieng, asking that he formulates at least five questions which we would pass to Ipsos. I asked him to do this during their Friday section meeting. Mr Ochieng (perhaps one of the best and yet uncelebrated editors of our times) meets his political team of reporters every Friday to plan their week ahead. Cognizant of the contest that had arisen over the results on popularity of leading politicians, I advised that one of the questions focuses on this.

On Monday November 17, 2014 at 4:47pm , I sent the five questions  to Virginia. She responded and told me they could not take Question No.2 on electoral reforms because another client had already submitted and paid for it. Our question read: “Do you agree with the Opposition about the push for reforms before 2016 polls? Yes/No.” I told her it was OK they could use the four and leave out that one.

The poll results

That was my last communication with Virginia. On December 16, 2014 I took my annual leave which was to run until January 20, 2015. I left Mr Henry Mukasa, the upcountry news editor, to act in my position. In that time, my access to my office mail was largely through my smartphone.

On Saturday January 10, 2015, I got a notification on my phone that I had an email from Ms Rose Aliguma of Ipsos. When I checked, it was an attachment of the findings of the questions we had sent them. I then called Mr Mukasa, who was not only acting for me, but who I also knew runs the news on Sunday. At 3.23pm I forwarded him the findings. I also copied in Mr John Tugume, the chief sub editor, and Mr Yasiin Mugerwa, the chief political writer, since I knew Mr Ochieng was away on leave. My note to them was that whatever angle they chose to use, it was important to explain the methodology since credibility of polls lies in how they are conducted.

On Monday, I picked a copy of the paper at my vendor in Kireka and scanned the article among others. In their wisdom the editors had chosen to play the results of Museveni against Amama Mbabazi—with the former endorsed by 57% of Ugandans. This was not distant from the results of the poll Research World International had done in May.

The storm

On that same Monday at 5.41pm, 72-year-old Malcolm, sent me an SMS on my phone, saying he had sent me a quick question. I synced my phone and this is the email he sent me. I reproduce verbatim.

“Don, sorry to interrupt leave, but a quick question: Is today’s poll part of the whole “poll discussion and planning” we did shortly after I came here? Is it all part of that? I have no qualms about the poll itself; I’m just being asked how this came about, and I don’t know the details. I also don’t recall seeing the questions (something I would like to do). Can you provide please. Again, no concerns whatsoever—though it was good. Just being asked by the acting MD, and I don’t have the answers. And if you steer me to someone else, cool! Thanks, Malcolm.

My response, sent at 5.55pm, read:

Hi Malcolm, yes, that’s part of the poll we discussed when we did the last one. It was agreed that we engage a second pollster to compare with what we had received from the first one. Actually, it is Alex, the former MD, who made contact with Ipsos and Okayed their payment. About the questions, I remember you tasking me to oversee this. This particular set was designed by Henry Ochieng and myself. When the firm sent the results on Saturday, I forwarded them to Henry for use since I am still on leave. Thanks.

However, the two editors who had handled the story had earlier indicated to me that Mr Justus Katungi, the circulation manager, and Mr Charles Bichachi, the managing editor for content/weekend, had asked them about the source of the poll (I will get to this later on).

On Tuesday morning, a friend sent me a Facebook message with an attachment he said he’d taken off Mr Wafula Oguttu’s wall (Waf, as we call him and whom I have immense respect for, is the current leader of opposition in Parliament. He is also one of the founders of the Daily Monitor before majority stakes were sold to the Nation Media Group. He also sits on the paper’s editorial board). The post read:

The so-called opinion poll run in yesterday’s Daily Monitor was a fake, a concoction planted in the paper by government agents with silly claims that it was commissioned by the Monitor. It was not commissioned by the Monitor. From my information, at least Monitor did not pay any body to do it if anything was done at all! It was aimed at destroying Amama Mbabazi. That is why Mbabazi’s name was unnecessarily dragged into the headline.

I indeed confirmed Mr Wafula had posted this to his wall. Before I could think of how to respond, I got an SMS from Mr Malcolm at 9.10am, saying I should see him because it was urgent. I told him to give me two hours and we agreed I meet him at 11am in his office.

When he came down from an HoD meeting, he began by asking me about the source of the poll and I passed him print-outs of the email exchanges we had. He did not bother to look at them. Then he told me: “Anyway Don, I am under pressure to restructure and I have decided I will have one managing editor. I am phasing out your position.” The transition from the polls to the restructuring was a bit dramatic.

I asked him why he had just three months back (October last year) spent his own money (Malcolm paid the tuition) to send me to one of the best journalism institutes in the US—Poynter—and he was dropping me from the team now. That question was critical. Why? In the emails he exchanged with Alex, then MD, George, the finance boss and Moses Ssesanga, the HR manager, Malcolm had told them he had spotted me as his possible successor and thought the training would be critical in that preparation. Why would an editor whom he saw as a possible successor three months later be excess requirement to the newspaper?

Anyway, Moses, the HR man, soon came in and indeed I was handed the “restructuring letter”. So urgent was the restructuring that my job would cease to exist the following day! I thanked Malcolm for all the opportunities, he acknowledged my brilliance and we shook hands and parted ways.

A few minutes later, I called up someone who hinted to me that an emergency meeting had been called on Tuesday morning in the MD’s office where the issue of the poll had come up. Malcolm and Charles had expressed ignorance about it and the conclusion was I had planted a poll in the paper. I was to be dismissed. However, to avoid legal issues, it would be clothed as restructuring with the company paying me benefits (so merciful of them, I must say).

The calls

Rules of natural justice, those that we emphasise in journalism everyday, demand that you listen to either side before you draw conclusions. It is simple logic. Unable to find the MD, Mr Stephen Gitagama (he is holding office briefly as MPL searches for a new MD following Alex’s exit last December) in his office, I called him at 1.13pm that same Tuesday and we spoke for 4 minutes and 36 seconds. The summary of our talk was that I had heard of the meeting about the poll. I told him he had been told half-truths. I explained that DM actually commissioned Ipsos to do the poll and it was not true the poll was cooked. I offered to send him the emails to that effect. I could read surprise in his tone and asked that I immediately forward him the emails, which I did. At 4.36pm, Mr Gitagama called me back. He admitted that he had spoken to Alex, former MD, Ipsos and George (finance) and had confirmed that Monitor actually commissioned the poll. But he added: “However, Malcolm tells me he did not word your letter basing on the poll. He wrote that it was restructuring.” Anyone who can read between the lines will know what that means.

Earlier, at 12.27pm, I had called Hon Wafula Oguttu and we spoke for 16 minutes and 52 seconds. I basically told him his post on Facebook was wrong. I explained the whole process of how DM commissioned Ipsos and how I had sent the questions drafted by our political team. Hon Wafula’s response was telling and perhaps explains the genesis of this whole matter. Hon Wafula (and he can confirm this) told me Mr Justus Katungi, the circulation manager, had called him complaining that we had published a fake poll. (Again, my colleagues at DM who perhaps know Justus well will not be surprised he made this false call). Mr Wafula had then called Mr Gitagama, who in turn had called Mr Malcolm. With Malcolm’s denial of the poll, the conclusion was drawn. When I told Mr Wafula that I was willing to send him the communication to that effect, he shifted the argument to the timing and other things. As we concluded, he told me he was going to call back management and I told him it was perhaps not necessary. I had been pushed out. Hon Wafula was honestly shocked. His words, “No, it can’t be. That is destabilizing the newspaper!” He promised to get back and I am still waiting.

I also called Mr Alex Asiimwe and informed him of the developments. Shocked, he promised to call Mr Gitagama.

On Wednesday morning, I called Mr Ssesanga, the HR manager, to just give him insight into what had transpired. I put it to him that his letter (it’s him who signed it) even when it spoke of restructuring, I had been pushed out because of misinformation on the poll.

 Conclusion:

Like I said, there have been massive distortions about these events, with some ill-intentioned people seeking to damage my character with numerous wild claims of how DM never commissioned a poll, how this was cooked up in State House and how I was paid to “plant” a poll in the newspaper, blah blah blah. I have seen several peoples names like Hon Frank Tumwebaze, Hon Muruuli Mukasa, Ms Lindah Nabusaayi,Mr  Morrison Rwakakamba and others being dragged into this. I have been accused of being given colossal sums of money to run the poll. Any good journalist must have contacts. I know people across the political divide. This, however, has never influenced my work.

The issues around my exit from the Daily Monitor do not only raise questions around the company’s administrative processes but also raises a serious question about the newspaper’s tag of independence and speaking truth every day. This is a question that both the commercial and editorial managers of Daily Monitor must reflect about. It is no doubt that a free press is a cornerstone of any democracy. However, what defines that “freedom” and “independence”? What exactly does “independence” mean for a newspaper? Is “independence” the same as “pro-opposition” or does it translate into “anti-Museveni” or “anti-government”? Should a poll that you commission and turns out with positive results about a sitting president be shelved because it does not fit into the “independence” notion? I can bet my leg that had the poll results perhaps shown the opposition to be leading, we would never have seen what happened.

It is also sad if claims I am hearing that journalists who do not seem to buy into a certain political mission have been targeted for sacking under the so-called “restructuring” plan. What message is Daily Monitor sending?

In my conversation with Hon Wafula, he mentioned something about the timing of the poll being wrong. It is also something that Mr Otim Lucima, the Monitor Opinions pages writer, told me when I engaged him over an email he had sent about the poll. It is something I am yet to grasp. Assuming I made wrong procedural decisions (like not letting my immediate boss know the poll results were back), the bottom-line questions we must ask are: was the poll published by the Monitor genuine? Did Monitor engage Ipsos to do a poll? Did Monitor draft the questions? Was Monitor bound to publish the poll?  As managing editor (albeit on leave) was it in my jurisdiction to oversee or even okay the publication of this poll? I guess when we get these answers, then we shall know where the problem lies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CREATING AN ENABLING ENVIRONMENT FOR PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISM IN UGANDA: THE ROLE OF MEDIA OWNERS IN PROMOTING PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISM.

Don Wanyama speaking at the UMDF Media Convention

Don Wanyama speaking at the UMDF Media Convention

NOTE: This is a keynote address I delivered at a media convention organised by the Uganda Media Development Foundation and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung at Sheraton Hotel in Kampala on April 30th, 2014.

Let me begin by thanking the organisers of this convention; the Uganda Media Development Foundation and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung for inviting me to make a keynote address at this very important convection. As a managing editor of a major daily, the Daily Monitor, I consider myself to be in the advantaged position of mediating between journalists and owners of a media house and therefore I can speak about this subject with authority.

But just before we delve into what exactly media owners can do to promote professionalism in journalism, maybe we need to ask ourselves what exactly professionalism means. The term professional journalism gained currency in the later 1800s together with the rise of what was termed as objective journalism. Scholars like James Curran and McChesney have also linked professionalism in journalism to the rise of advertising as an effect on editorial content.

Because the pre-1900 media(also defined as era of Yellow Journalism) had been radical, with most taking hardline stances as pro-labour, pro-Republicans, pro-Democrats or pro-this and pro-that, the rise of the industrial press in the early 20th century, and the associated costs, meant that costs of production were too high. The media, especially print media, became costly to produce but also offered lots of profit opportunities. It meant that the media owners had to engage external stakeholders—advertisers—to help finance the media. In the process, it was incumbent that journalists then take more middle-line positions (neutral) or unbiased. This is what initially came to be known as professional journalism. Closely tied to this development was the rise of formal journalism training. Schools of journalism began sprouting especially in the US where journalists and editors were given basics of news management and how to make editorial decision based on professional judgement and not foreign pressure or interests.

But what is our contemporary understanding of professional journalism today, especially in the Ugandan context? I will borrow from the Cambridge International Dictionary of English. It says being professional is: “having the qualities that you connect with trained and skilled people, such as effectiveness, skill, organization and seriousness of manner.”

Therefore to demand that a journalist is a professional means;

– They must have some level of training and exposure in journalism

– They should be able to appreciate the ethical obligations of the profession and live by them. The information minister has just issued a new instrument detailing ethics like accuracy, respect for privacy, avoidance of plagiarism, respect for minors, corruption etc. I guess that several media houses also have their own internal codes of ethics that I expect their journalists to follow.

– A professional journalist must also know why they are journalists. They must appreciate that they are the watchdogs of society (not necessarily attack dogs) and that they hold this space in trust of the public. Whatever they do, it must serve the larger interests of the public.

What then can those who own or run media houses do in order to enhance this professionalism? It is obvious that many people invest in media business for varied reasons. Ever since the government liberalized the media space in 1992, we have seen a burst in investments in the media, especially broadcast media, with now over 200 privately-owned FM radio stations, close to 50 licensed TV stations and now a plethora of online/digital newsites/weblogs. The area that perhaps has not attracted as much attention is the print media and this largely has to do with the high costs involved in running newspapers. Many have sprung up but closed before their first birthday.

For whatever motive people might have in investing in the media, it is important that they realize from the word go that the media is not like any other business. It is important that those who choose to open up media houses be it radios, newspapers, TVs or even news sites understand that this is not your usual soap, paraffin or beer business. It is not just a question of supply and demand or putting up a stall and people walking in to purchase. The media is important business. It is a watchdog; it is about informing people, educating them and entertaining them.

Media also is about speaking truth to the powers that be and holding those in positions of responsibility to account. It does not matter whether this is in politics, religion, culture, entertainment or sports. Therefore, any person who sets out to start a media business must be able to appreciate this wider role of the media. I insist on this because unless the media owners appreciate this duty/role their demands on the journalists/editors will many times be unreasonable and unprofessional.

Media owners must understand that even in the pursuit of profit, it is still critical that journalists are allowed the space to do what journalism entails. This therefore brings me to the first proposal for media owners in as far as promoting professional journalism; give the journalists and editors/news managers the space to work. If journalists feel their space is lacking or some spaces are no-go areas, it then becomes very difficult for them to act professionally. Many times, media owners, being businesspeople, have commercial interests elsewhere. Today, we also see a trend of politicians moving to own broadcast media houses.

However, irrespective of your other commercial or political interests, it is important that you allow your journalists to be free and report on anything, provided they do it professionally, freely. When the Industrial Promotion Services (IPS), which is the industrial investment arm of the Aga Khan was developing Bujagali Dam, the Daily Monitor newspaper did a couple of fairly critical stories on the dam’s development. The Aga Khan is the majority shareholder in Daily Monitor through the Nation Media Group shareholding.

Professionalism can only develop if journalists know that they will write or report the facts and suffer no backlash for it. Even when they make professional mistakes, this should not be the cause for retribution.

This space to operate is closely tied to another common interest that media owners peddle—and that is interests of advertisers. I have done personal research on the question of advertising and how it influences journalism and editorial content and the revelations are shocking.

Today, some media have their content fully determined by advertisers while others tailor their content so that it suits advertiser interests. Media houses are being held hostage and media proprietors are actually accomplices in this. That is why I mentioned earlier that those who invest in the media should know that it is not your conventional type of business. I should not be misunderstood here. I am alive to the fact that no media—even community media—can meet its bills without advertising.

However, it is professionally wrong to let advertisers use this as leverage to dictate what journalists can or cannot do. I know of a media house that had a run-in with one of the big telecoms in this country over a story the telecom did not like. The telecom immediately cut-off advertising. The media house stood its ground and weeks later, the telecom resumed advertising. I see a lot of these situations daily. You publish a story that someone does not like, even when factual, and their default reaction is to cut advertising. The lesson for media owners here is that you should not overly pander to advertisers. The task for you should be how to turn your media house into a professional, well-run media house. With good content and good journalism, you will surely win over the audiences.

And once you have the audience, the advertisers will come knocking. It is never the other way round. It is therefore important that you empower journalists to do the right thing—ultimately this will bring in the money. Still on commercial pressures, I would advise that there is a fair level of separation between the editorial and commercial operations of any media house. Senior news managers should have an idea of how the company’s business side is fairing but should not be placed under pressure to deliver profits. This is what is termed as the Chinese Wall in some media houses. That ability to insulate the editors and journalists from the business pressures is important in ensuring professionalism.

Allow me touch on another issue—one which has become a song but I guess must be mentioned—remuneration. Let me first note that a lot has happened in Uganda’s journalism in terms of pay over the years. I have had chance to interact with what I would call the fathers of Uganda’s modern-day journalism like Charles Onyango-Obbo and Wafula Oguttu, who all admit that there has been a lot of improvement in as far as working conditions of journalists is concerned. There was a time in this country when what drove and sustained journalists in this country was only passion. Today, I know of journalists who earn up to Shs5 million a month in some media houses. I know of radio presenters who earn similar or even more money.

But that is just half the story. Scores of journalists in this country are still being exploited. Many of them work without clear terms of service. Of course we can blame the weak unions and others but media owners are not entirely innocent here. Some of the professional challenges we face in the industry partly stem from this. It is disheartening for example while driving to work in the morning and you hear a news bulletin on radio—and it is the exact newspaper article you edited last evening—being presented like an original news item—complete with some of the mistakes you could have made. Part of the challenges we see in journalism today are directly attributed to this issue of poor payment. The rise of brown envelopes, no research in reporting, plagiarism, extortion, impersonation, are all linked to this. My call to media managers is that at least do the basics. Hire a manageable team of journalists but give them basic tools of trade. If you send reporters to the field, give them transport and meals. It gets disturbing to see journalists develop a reputation for fighting for food and the meager transport refunds at workshops and conferences.

Will better pay immediately resolve these issues, perhaps not immediately but it should go a long way into helping redeem the profession. And the guys who hold the purses—the owners of media houses—can help realise this.

Close with this is training and professional growth. For example, we now have an upsurge of the Internet and digital platforms. Journalists are no longer the sole owners of news. There is the rise of citizen journalism. How do journalists cope with these technological changes and the changing role of journalism? What support are media proprietors doing to help re-skill and retool their journalists? Just as business people take their salesmen for refresher courses, it is important that journalists receive continuous training to keep them relevant. Passion on the side of journalists must be supplemented with appropriate education grounding. There are other concerns like security of jobs and even security amidst external pressure unlike advertising. I will take my job seriously when I know that the media house owner cannot just walk in one morning and fire me—like I have heard it happen in some radio and TV stations.

I also need assurance that the proprietor of my media house can stand by me in the heat of external pressure, especially if the story/show that causes consternation has been down professionally. How many media owners are willing to offer their journalists legal support, for example, once their work causes lawsuits? How many are ready to help journalists replace their tools of trade like cameras or get them insured—in case they are destroyed in line of duty? Small as some of these things might look, they go a long way into ensuring not just professionalism but loyalty from journalists.

My talk so far makes it look like the role of professionalism lies squarely with media owners, of course not. It is because the topic asked me to focus on media owners. However, this discussion will be incomplete if I do not say something about the journalists themselves. The ultimate truth is that the responsibility of doing a good job as a journalist starts with you—the journalist. How passionate are you about journalism? What motivates you as a journalist? Are you willing to observe the ethics even amidst the challenges that the profession throws your way? These and many others are questions that a journalist must ask themselves.

However, challenging the conditions are, it is no reason for you to act unprofessionally. If you take a bribe to kill a story or embellish it, you surely should not blame the meager pay. That is plain lack of professionalism. And like we have done with our media house—and would encourage media owners here to do so—punitive action should be taken and it should be publicized. There are more other things journalists can do to improve their own professionalism; –

The question of unions to help push for better terms—this still has a long way, say compared to our neighbours in Kenya.

– Peer review mechanisms and ability to hold each other to account. National Institute of Journalists of Uganda (NIJU) as stipulated in the Press and Journalist Act to help develop this fellowship—is also in a lull.

– Finally to the media owners, as part of ensuring professionalism, I would encourage you to share with the public what compacts you have with your journalists. I saw such campaigns ran in the past in the print media, I would encourage the broadcast media to follow suit. If you read today’s Daily Monitor, the executive editor has explained what is demanded of its journalists in terms of stories. Your audiences must know what limits your journalists operate in. For example, I get numerous calls from people asking how much we charge to run opinions. Of course we don’t charge to publish any news except for adverts but a crafty person could take advantage of that and fleece an unsuspecting member of the public.

Once again thanks for listening to me and thanks to the organisers for according me this honour as a keynote speaker. Let us keep good journalism alive.

Monitor siege and future of independent media in Uganda

 Two weeks after I had been named acting managing editor of Daily Monitor, the police raided the newspaper, turning off the press and bringing all activities to a halt. The siege went on for 11 days. On the seventh day, the Mail & Guardian of South Africa asked me to write a piece, reflecting on what the events meant for journalism but also explaining what had really happened. The piece was published on Friday, May 31. Below is the piece

 

Eighth Street in Kampala’s Industriciid picsal Area is deserted. Seven days ago, this was another busy street in the heart of the capital’s industrial hub. On a normal day, the noise from Monitor Publications Limited printing press would rend the air and the street would be a hub of activity as hundreds of the newspaper’s staff paced in and out of the premises. This would be punctuated with the hooting of the fast-moving boda bodas (motorcycles) as they rushed to pick and deliver their passengers.

But this is not a normal day. In fact, it is the eighth “abnormal” day. Monitor Publications Limited (MPL) is a shell of its usual self. Instead of the sea of workers, tens of policemen, armed to the teeth, some with tear gas and anti-riot gear are spread across the newspaper’s premises. A yellow tape around the front of the building marks it out as a scene of crime. The doors are locked. No one is allowed near the premises.

It all began on May 7th. On that day, Daily Monitor, the flagship newspaper of MPL, published contents of a letter written by Uganda’s top intelligence boss, Gen David Sejusa, directing one of the country’s intelligence arms to investigate claims that top government officials opposed to the idea of President Yoweri Museveni’s son, Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, succeeding his father had been marked out for possible elimination.

The succeeding days saw a flurry of reactions from the government, most criticising Gen Sejusa, now holed up in London, of seeking to foment dissent in the army and trying to launch his own presidential bid by sucking the President’s son into the succession debate.

Gen Sejusa is no stranger to controversy. In 1996, after commanding the war in the north of the country against the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, where he was accused of running a scotched earth policy, he told a parliamentary committee that the Ugandan army lacked the will to end the war. He also accused his colleagues of corruption.

The regime ordered that he be court-martialed. The general opted to retire from the army—a wish that was rejected. He challenged the decision in the High Court, which ruled in his favour before the State appealed and won in the Supreme Court.

 Instead of being punished, he struck a deal with the government, underwent “rehabilitation”, before emerging in 2005 to command an operation that saw opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who was returning from exile in South Africa, brutally arrested. When the courts granted Mr Besigye and others accused of treason bail, the same Gen Sejusa led an operation where commandos surrounded the courts and forcefully re-arrested the suspects.

For Daily Monitor this new drama had just begun. Three days after publishing contents of the General’s letter, the newspaper received summons from the police. They wanted to interrogate me (the managing editor), and the two journalists (Richard Wanambwa & Risdel Kasasira) who authored the story. The police asked for a copy of the letter and demanded that we reveal its source. Citing ethical obligations to protect sources, we rejected the demand. For three days, the we appeared at the seat of the Criminal Investigations Directorate, where the same demand was repeated. We stood our ground.

Making no headway, the police sought a court order compelling us to produce the document. Our lawyer filed an objection but before it could be heard by the judge, the police on Monday 20th, turned up with a warrant to search the premises for the letter and other documents. They cordoned off the newspaper premises, shut down its printing press and switched off two radio stations affiliated to the newspaper.

Despite the newspaper’s lawyers being able to have court cancel the search warrant and ask police to vacate MPL premises, the police stay put. It is the eighth day of the siege now. The newspaper has not been able to print and the radios are off air.

To keep its journalists engaged and readers abreast, the newspaper has moved most of its operations online. A skeleton newsroom ensures big news events are captured on the newspaper’s website, http://www.monitor.co.ug, the most-visited news website in Uganda.

For now, the newspaper’s future remains foggy. For most staff, end of month is three days away. Despite management’s assurance that they will be paid their salaries, some are worried about their job security. MPL’s managing director, Mr Alex Asiimwe, estimates that the newspaper is losing Ushs120 million (about US$45,000) daily in circulation and advertising revenue.

The biggest loss, however, may not be monetary. It is the freedom of expression and press that are under severe test. Daily Monitor is no stranger to run-ins with the state. In 2002, it was shut down for 10 days after it ran a story about a military helicopter being brought down by the LRA rebels. In 2005, KFM, a radio affiliated to Daily Monitor, was switched off air, following a talk-show themed on the death of then South Sudan leader.

The state has also severally dragged the newspaper’s editors to court whenever it has published stories deemed critical of the regime. As the leading independent newspaper in Uganda, Daily Monitor has without doubt taken blows for its stance. What remains to be seen is how deep the scar of this latest assault will be on not just Daily Monitor but free speech, expression and media in Uganda.

(Note: A day before this article was published, Thursday May, 29th, the government lifted the siege on Daily Monitor and Red Pepper. The newspapers are now back on the stands)

 

 

Tabloids are the future of print media; myth or fact?

tabloidsWriting in the Masscom@20 journal, published by Makerere University’s Department of Journalism and Communication to mark its 20th anniversary in 2009, Mr Arinaitwe Rugyendo, a founder of The Red Pepper, makes an impassioned case for tabloids and tabloidization.

Titled “The future lies in tabloidization”, Mr Rugyendo’s paper argues that because tabloids appeal to younger readers, promote citizen journalism and “critically address the needs of ordinary people”, they outrightly represent the future of journalism.

But in the same journal, respected journalist and media scholar Dr Peter Mwesige, writing under the title “Tabloids: The plague of journalism or its savior”, pokes holes into some of Mr Rugyendo’s assertions and also poses questions for his readers to ponder on.

Primarily, Dr Mwesige acknowledges that at times tabloids have acted as the trailblazers on big stories, which are only picked up by mainstream media thereafter. The Brig. Noble Mayombo death cause comes into mind here.

But Dr Mwesige does pose some questions: why do tabloids come up when they do? Are there specific industry dynamics or societal (re)configurations at play?

Here, I attempt some responses to Dr Mwesige’s questions but in doing so, also make an exploration of the media industry in Uganda—with a single question at the back of my mind: is tabloidization the way to go?

To answer the question when do tabloids come up when they do? Let’s look at a quick history of tabloids. The general agreement is that roots of tabloids can be traced to the era of “Yellow Journalism” and the rivalry between Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst as they battled for the New York readership through their publications, New York World and New York Journal respectively.

To grow sales, the two men appealed to the “base” audiences, those ignored by the mainstream press. Marie Frankson, who wrote a paper titled “A Brief History of Yellow Journalism”, cited this “base” audience as “women, labour leaders, Democrats, immigrants and the poor”.

So, who are Rugyendo’s “ordinary people”? Are they the same as the “women, labour leaders, Democrats, immigrants and the poor”, whom Pulitzer and Hearst attracted?

The most recent Uganda All Media Product Survey (UAMPS) done by IPSOS/Synovate research firm (February 2013) shows that Red Pepper enjoys 27% of the market share of readers between 15-19 years (the youngest sampled demographic). The survey indicates that The New Vision commands 69% of the share; Bukedde has 53% while Daily Monitor controls 42%.

In the 20-24 age bracket, Red Pepper and Daily Monitor each enjoy 39% market share, while the New Vision has 67% market share control. These figures dispel the myth that tabloids have a greater control over younger readers, seeing that Red Pepper, actual trails in the market control of the young readers.

What about Rugyendo’s assertion that tabloids appeal to the “ordinary people”? A loose connection can be made between “ordinary” and “rural”. Again, the survey gives a different story. Red Pepper enjoys 31% of rural readership, compared to New Vision’s 62% and Daily Monitor’s 49%.

Dr Mwesige also wonders why despite the hype about tabloids, they still struggle in terms of sales. To respond to the question of appeal, one could be guided by circulation figures. Red Pepper does not subscribe to the Audit Bureau of Circulation but its circulation stands at about 12,000 to 15,000 copy sales. The New Vision averages 30,000 copies while Daily Monitor does 20,000 copies.

Whereas the New Vision and Daily Monitor are over 20 years old, Red Pepper is just above the decade mark. We therefore need to ask, if Red Pepper, as Rugyendo indicates, was attracting new readers “ignored” by mainstream media, did the entry of the tabloid actually attract new readers or it simply poached on existing readers?

Again, we shall turn to the numbers. When Red Pepper came into the market in the early 2000s, the Sunday Vision, which was best-selling then, did about 45,000 copies. Daily Monitor was averaging 30,000 copies. In the past decade, both papers have lost a fair share of circulation but neither has Red Pepper gained a lot. A common sense conclusion here is that rather than invite totally new readers to the stable, Red Pepper has largely poached from the mainstream media.

But it would be important to talk about the other major tabloid in the Ugandan industry—Bukedde newspaper. It seems to be the only paper defying the odds. When other papers have struggled circulation-wise, Bukedde has kept growing its reader base, with the recent ABC report placing it at an average of 31,000 copies up from less than 25,000 five years ago. If the growth trend stayed that way, Bukedde could become the highest circulating newspaper in the next five to 10 years.

So, why has Bukedde succeeded where Red Pepper seems to be struggling? First, we must note that Bukedde is the only player in the Luganda sector. It publishes in Luganda and has no major competitor. Secondly, Bukedde is fairly lower-priced than the other papers. A copy goes for Shs1,000, where the two English broadsheets charge Shs1,500 while Red Pepper goes for Shs2,000 a copy. But even then being a tabloid, the sensational and dramatic news presentation aids Bukedde a lot. Headlines like “Entisa!” or “Wuno!” naturally create curiosity, driving readership. In fact, we can perhaps conclude that only Bukedde, as a tabloid, has been able to attract new readers!

But that said, truth is we cannot wish away tabloidization (as opposed to tabloids) entirely. Rugyendo has a point when he talks of mainstream papers being “stale”. Of course this realization is not lost on the mainstream papers. Daily Monitor, for example, launched SQOOP magazine, largely to address matters of tabloidization. The New Vision was quick to follow with BLITZ. The Vision Group now has a whole tabloid, The Kampala Sun, whose circulation figures I don’t have but I guess is slowly connecting with the market. The trick, in my view might not lie in papers mutating into full-blown tabloids but it will be in the inevitable approach to having some tabloidised content in the mainstream media.

It would be unfair to conclude this discussion without talking about quality. Dr Mwesige asks, have tabloids led to the democratization of the media? Have they offered a wider platform for voices to be heard? Have they contributed to the body of public discourse?

Tabloids have indeed helped broach subjects which the mainstream media could have shied away from. But what is the nature of their sourcing? Rugyendo boasts “ordinary citizens calling and giving tips—and their stories appearing the following day”. This is not entirely true. Most news tips come from walk-in informers. Red Pepper does not have the physical national presence like Daily Monitor and New Vision do (each with about five bureaus spread across the country).

But also, how much professional scrutiny is subjected to tabloid stories—many times little or none. Of course the argument is that tabloids have some leeway to engage hyperbole. But one-sided stories, single sourced, making varying allegations with no right of reply to the accused, is not what one can call democratized media. It is professional dishonesty. Is that the media democracy we want—I leave that question to you.

By the way: What is a tabloid? The website http://journalism.about.com, defines it as a newspaper that typically measures 11 X 17 inches and is five columns across, narrower than a broadsheet newspaper. Their stories tend to be shorter and tabloid readers are often working class residents of big cities. Tabloids also tend to be more irreverent and slangy in their writing style than their more serious broadsheet brothers. And while a broadsheet might spend dozens of column inches on “serious” news – a tabloid is more likely to zero in on a heinous sensational crime story or celebrity gossip. They focus exclusively on splashy, lurid stories about celebrities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is advertising pressure eroding editorial independence?

ImageThe American journalist Abbott Joseph Liebling (1904 –1963) is known for his famous remark:  “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role is to make money.”

Of course no media house, unless community or public, is not driven by crave for profit. But the media also have a fundamental role to play. It is the reason the media exists. To be the voice of the voiceless, to advance the cause of democracy, to promote human rights.

When America ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791, the crucial role of the media was captured in Amendment 1, which clearly stipulated that Congress would make no law prohibiting the freedom of speech and press. The basis of this was that the media served as a cornerstone in building democracy, especially by checking the powers that be.

Independent media, especially in Uganda, has had its fair share of run-ins with the government. Closures, like was with The Monitor, CBS radio, revocation of operating licences (NTV) and outright threats by government functionaries is not new.

But as the media watches over its back, wondering what the government and its operatives could be up to, is there a newer threat they are not paying attention to; the advertisers?

In most of the 1990s, Ugandan newspapers largely depended on revenue from circulation. It perhaps explains the great creativity we witnessed then as newspapers fought for the market share. However, with the liberalization policy of the NRM government taking root in the late 1990s, a host of private multi-national corporations came knocking.

From the Celtel of then, to Stanbic replacing UCB, hundreds of private players have entered the market. Whereas the government employs less than one million Ugandans, the private sector from banking, telecoms, media, hotels, transporting currently employ the bulk of working Ugandans. This naturally means the private sector players probably have greater control on Ugandans’ livelihoods and if so, the media should be placing them under stricter scrutiny than even probably the government—but is this happening?

From my own interactions with journalists and editors, I have gotten the impression that the cash factor is increasingly hampering discharge of their duties. Here is what a friend, who was assigned to the court beat of one of the major newspapers, told me about his experience.

“I came across a case in court where a Black employee of a big oil/soap manufacturing firm was suing his Asian supervisor of abuse. The employee had accused the supervisor of treating them like dogs. He would beat them, spit at them, and do all manner of strange things. Being in court, this meant the information enjoyed qualified privilege and I could write the story. I did precisely that.”

He added: “I did not know I had opened a can of worms. The moment the story was published (as a brief), the company called our managing director. They accused me of all manner of things, including outrageous claims that the cleaner (plaintiff) had paid me. Of course I made my defence but they then pulled the masterstroke. The case was coming up for hearing but if we published the details of the hearing, then we could be sure their advertising, which ran in the millions, would be suspended.”

The above experience perhaps illustrates just a tip of what many reporters, whose work leads them in the path of big advertisers, go through. The burden is even heavier on editors. Every week, they are informed of what the big revenue stream of their media is. They are told who will be paying big advertising money that week. This information is a polite way of saying: “Let this big spender not be written about negatively.”

Editors today are even assigned commercial targets. It is not uncommon to see an editor besides being asked to sell a certain number of copies, to also initiate “money-making” projects for the media house. So, beyond being bogged down with the pressure of delivering good stories, editors must think about special projects/supplements/activations that will yield that extra revenue for the paper.

In her paper, “Editorial Independence; an outdated concept?” Australian journalist Michelle Grattan observes that the problem is not in demanding profit but “the profits being demanded are huge”. Uganda’s top media houses; Vision Group and Monitor Publications Limited, have in the past decade been raking in increased revenues every year. The pressure to better last year’s performance means editors and journalists working extra time to ensure higher sales, more copies.

This has meant media getting into bed with those it should be checking. Big advertisers demand prime space in newspapers, they fault the media when critical stories are run, they compromise journalists and do everything within the book to ensure only positive coverage happens.

An editor I spoke to sums it this way: “There were times when we feared the government. Today, it is riskier to criticize a private advertiser than the government. You can insult the President but will have trouble criticizing a CEO of a top company. We have been taken hostage.”

Even the government seems to have realized that money is mightier than molestation. Government agencies when unimpressed by media coverage also cite the financial implications of rubbing them the wrong way. When Uganda’s Parliament hosted the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2012, a certain media house ran a couple of stories critical of the procurement processes ahead of the conference.

Parliament had been running weekly adverts in this media house and when the stories cropped up, the advertising was halted. No reasons were offered although the general thinking is that parliament was unhappy with the criticism.

Journalists and editors find themselves in the tricky position of balancing the commercial and editorial objectives of their media houses. Is this possible or must one be sacrificed for another? This is a matter I will return to in a short while.