In the news: Why this is the worst possible time to be a Ugandan editor

This article was first published in Daily Monitor on 21 February 2015. It is republished here with permission.

 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

In a few weeks, two friends at Monitor Publications Ltd, MD Alex Asiimwe and managing editor for reporting Don Wanyama, left employment at the media house.

I have read endless stories, especially in online journals, and received many emails and calls from worried fans of Daily Monitor asking “what is going on at our paper?”

As a funny bloke I know likes to say, there is the story of the beer, and the story of the brewery. To focus on the comings and goings at Monitor is to concentrate on the beer bottles. I am more intrigued by what is happening in the brewery.

Nearly all the things happening at Monitor and other media in Uganda, are a struggle to grapple with how news and information, and especially the consumers, have changed.

Indeed, a few days ago I called New Vision CEO Robert Kabushenga for information on some research I was doing. I chose to ring him on a Sunday when I wouldn’t have to steal his company time. The fellow, having dodged church, was in office working.

He hadn’t slept well the previous night, he said. “The newspaper as we know in Uganda, and indeed the rest of Africa, is broken”, he said, “I am here trying to figure out a new direction.”

He is right. When I edited The Monitor, we actually had a fairly easy time. First, we didn’t have to work too hard to figure out what the news agenda was. All we needed was to have the courage to tell the stories.

Things were clear. To pick a few: There was the war in the north, so the issue was who was killing and raping? Who was winning, and how would the war end – on the battlefield or through a negotiated settlement?

The NRM was a one-party state. How long would it remain so, and when would the country return to multiparty politics, if at all?

There was the question of the return of the kingdoms. Would they return or wouldn’t they? What would the kingdoms get, and what would President Yoweri Museveni keep for himself?

Oh, Kabaka Ronnie Mutebi was an eligible bachelor. Who would be his queen, and when would he put a ring on her finger? We fell over that story and made fools of ourselves more than once.

Then the Rwandans in then the National Resistance Army (NRA) broke off and went to fight to reclaim their statehood. It was a big story, and we feasted on it. That was the age of colourful figures; Salim Saleh was still in his element. There was Fred Rwigyema. The NRM and NRA had all sorts of interesting people.

Winnie Byanyima was still around, and Miria Matembe was setting off fireworks everyday. The late Basoga Nsadhu was a rabblerousing backbencher, spewing more sensational corruption stories than we had space for. A small story about them was all you needed to make budget.
There was a new constitution to make. The first general election of the Museveni era, and then into 2001 the big one – the first internal revolt in the NRM and most credible electoral threat to Museveni in the person of Kizza Besigye.

There were none, then only a few FM stations. The internet hadn’t exploded, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was still in nappies. There was no noise, there were few distractions. In terms of owning public attention, there was a virtual duopoly by Monitor and New Vision.

But most importantly, Ugandans were still hopeful. They hadn’t become as cynical as today, so a corruption story ensured good sales because people expected the thief would be punished. Today, they fully expect the thief to be promoted.

Joseph Kony long ran away to the forests of the DR Congo and Central African Republic.

The UPDF are now international peacekeepers, and goes to foreign countries wearing an African Union or UN beret, so no rogue generals stealing wild animals and peasants’ coffee off trees in foreign countries.

The novelty of a challenge to Museveni is gone. Mutebi was taken long ago. Saleh is semi-retired. Ugandans have had multiparty politics long enough, some have lost faith in its ability to deliver change.

And there are nearly 200 FM stations; there is the Internet, social media, Chimpreports and UgandansAtHeart serving up more lively debate than you can take in – and a country with the youngest population in the world.

The model of the mass general newspaper is dead. There is little to no news the newspapers will beat social media on. I check Museveni’s Twitter handle for most of the routine news on his actions.

I don’t have a sure idea about what the future newspaper might look like, but I now have seen data on some surprising changed reader habits. It is a tough time to be a Ugandan newspaper editor.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian AFRICA (mgafrica.com). Twitter:@cobbo3

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