Much as I am not a journalist by training, I have been practising the trade for over two decades. Journalism, like most professions in this country, is faced with many challenges. Among them, the proliferation of phones that have liberalised the newsgathering and reporting to everyone who wishes to join. Phones, especially the internet enabled ones, removed the barrier to entry to the 4th estate and opened it up for everyone.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, good cameras were only owned by studios and media houses. Good video cameras were owned by just a few people. Those who knew how to operate them, were even fewer. So a journalist would go with a producer and then a photographer to the field. Transmission of the images and content was so hard that during the coverage of the Kibwetere massacre, media houses such as BBC, Channel 4 and others, had to ship in satellite transmission vans to broadcast. UTV and WBS then had huge vans, the size of a Fuso truck, to transmit events live. It was a whole team effort. These days, NBS TV sends one person, not necessarily a journalist, to cover your event live. Even a phone can deliver good content directly.
You actually don’t need a TV to broadcast, some people like Kakensa and others control a massive following, using social media to broadcast. Everyone can go live and have more reach than even a fully-fledged licence can only dream of. Effectively every Tom, Dick and Henry can be a journalist.
The other challenge is the liberalisation of the airwaves. I have been lucky to do business in most of the neighbouring nations. There is none that has as many stations per capita as Uganda. With a mature population of less than 25M people – the majority are below 18 years – we have over 300 radio stations, 39 TV stations, over 100 online publications and uncountable online channels.
Because there is a fight for the few advertising customers, many have fallen off over the years such as Hits, Warid, Vodafone, Smart Telecom, UTL and Moonberg Lager to mention but a few, we are undercutting ourselves. The cost of advertising is so low in Uganda that over 70% of the media houses are under water. Of the TVs, only 4 are breaking even, of the newspapers, only two are breaking even. Of the radios, only about 20 are breaking even. The rest are working at a loss, hoping things will change and they start making money.
The cost of advertising in this country is so low that after paying for running costs, there is little or nothing left to run the stations. This is worse for stations, the majority of which were started either for religious reasons or by politicians for political reasons. Off campaign season, they hardly make a coin.
This hasn’t been helped by the fact that the government, which is the biggest spender in this country, since we have a thin manufacturing or service industry, often doesn’t put aside a budget to advertise/publicise their programs. Most stations are limping.
It’s therefore understandable why the biggest complaint on this year’s World Press Freedom Day was that of payment for journalists. You will realise there are two types of journalists, those working for media that make some money that actually get paid, however little, and then those that work for other media houses that get almost nothing. This shows that if the media had money, maybe pay would be substantial.
As the National Association of Broadcasters NAB, we have asked the government to consider at least 2% of their budgets as media spend. This will help the government get the populations engaged on the great programs they have. It will also enable the stations to equip their people better while paying them more.
There are also efforts to increase the cost of advertising through the Uganda Media Owners’ Association UMOA initiative. We have set minimum standards for rates which were hard to implement. If both work, there will be no excuse as to why journalists shouldn’t be paid enough. Ofcourse, without the minimum wage, wages for journalists won’t be any different from other fields. If nurses get paid 400,000 UGX, maids get paid less than 100,000 UGX, teachers less than 400,000 UGX, we can’t expect a miracle where journalists get paid more.
In the meantime, journalists need to realise that their profession has been infiltrated by talented individuals from other professions. They need to quickly reskill themselves to be marketable in the marketplace that exists. Otherwise, DJs , photographers , comedians , models are not going to spare the jobs they called theirs.
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