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.