By Unamed Source
This is not about The Daily Monitor or the Red Pepper or Sejusa and his pen pals. But just to avoid any misunderstandings, I don’t believe it was an awesome thing the government did shutting down the newspapers for so long. I was not, however, going to attend any protests because, well, that is what this is about…
There are some freedoms which we enjoy because we are entitled to them by birth. It is right, just, holy even, that we enjoy these freedoms. No one or no circumstance should take them away. The right to life, the right to your conscience, the right to find God and the right to speak.
Then there are other freedoms and rights which we have because, well, it is the most convenient way we can think of to keep democracy running.
The freedom of press is one of these. Allowing all press organisations to say whatever they want without hindrance is not a great idea, really. It means lies, slander, propaganda, bigotry are going to have free reign. And it’s not like free speech—free press is free speech with commercial value—as in now the lies, slander, propaganda, bigotry are being sold. They have monetary value for someone. This is not just a guy ranting in a bar; this is someone who has staked his livelihood on you buying his bullshit.
A free press is not a choir of angels singing holy truths. It is a riot of bullshit. It is a mess. It is a chaotic tangle of bad thinking and ignorance shouted aloud but it is the only way we can keep a democracy running.
Because even though so much of it is going to be trash, there will be vital, crucial, indispensible truth in there as well, and this truth is fragile and needs to be protected from the many forces that will want to silence it and the only way to make sure that this truth can survive the threats of power is to make a firm agreement: “Okay, instead of the powers deciding what can be said and what cannot be said, let us say no blocking anything. Anyone who talks can talk. Society will decide what to accept and what to reject.”
That is how free press works. Not because it is a really cool thing for free press, but because it is the least shit thing we can come up with.
The truth has to be protected from power, especially power of governments, which historically have always tried to abuse their power and keep these abuses secret from the people who end up being the victims of this abuse.
Speaking of victims. This is how I have always thought of the way journalism works. We have society here as a bunch of guys. Now these guys are subject to influence from a number of forces around them—government forces, economic forces, God and His acts and words, etc. Now, these people in their huddled bunch need to know what is going on in the seats of these powers so they can manage their lives. They need to know if the president is planning to groom his son to take over power or if he is going to step down and let democracy elect a new leader. They need to know if the central bank policies on bank rates are going to hurt them before they finally curb inflation. They need to know if The Lord is fine with adoption of children born of other faiths.
So a journalist is the person who goes out, finds out, and comes back and tells them.
This definition captures everything I believe about journalism. First the definition of news is there: it is what we as society are asking when we say: “What is going on there?” The role of the journalist is also clearly marked. He or she is the person among us who goes out and finds out what we want and need to know.
The press is not separate from the people. The press works for us and is one of us.
That press should be free to go and find out whatever it does and bring it back to us and tell us all.
That press’ freedom should not be curtailed.
However, these days it doesn’t quite work like that. It hasn’t worked like that in ages. Since the commodification of news, when the agent that brought you the truth was selling it to you to make a living, that is when things began to turn to shit. Because then we had news being made for the people who would buy it. And that biased the process. Now, instead of telling you what is important, we tell you what you are more likely to buy. I remember sitting in an office meeting hearing a colleague rant about the sausage. He railed about how awful the economy was, how poverty was increasing and how inflation was in double digits.
I calmly pointed out that inflation has been below five percent all of this year. This came as a shock to him.
I also have heard people just reject the news that poverty in Uganda is decreasing. As well as people who reject the idea that it is increasing. Each side prefer a conspiracy theory—one side saying that the official stats—nti abject poverty countrywide is down to 30 percent from 50 percent 10 years ago—are falsified by the World Bank at the behest of the NRM, and the other side saying that they are inflated by NGOs that want to justify the large budgets they claim from donors.
Both these people were hearing the figure of 30 percent for the first time from me.
Now, I always think that the biggest issue in Africa right now is poverty—everything else comes second. And that the biggest news in any country is how its economy is doing—is it getting wealthier or not. I think everyone who wants to know what is going on in a country should know the current basic economic indicators. Those things should be on the front page of the newspapers every month. But that’s not how the press works because that’s not what people will buy.
But that is not what really broke the press. That just cracked its veneer. There came the time when the press wasn’t about journalists earning a living, it was about press companies becoming rich. They were not going to get this by selling truth to the public; they would get this by becoming advertising platforms. The public were no longer their consumers. No, the advertisers were. The advertisers who were buying the attention of readers from the papers. The public became the product the press sold to the advertisers. They truth is not the commodity, we are. They don’t serve us; they serve us, in the sense of waiters serving food to gourmands at a dinner table. We are the meal.
During this whole Sejusa thing we have been up in arms about government influencing what gets published and what doesn’t. The truth is the Ugandan government doesn’t actually meddle as much as you would imagine. But almost every week there is a story that is made or broken in a company boardroom somewhere.
I would give you examples, but I can’t do that without telling you which company I work for and who I am. And the reason I cannot tell you who I am is that the press company I work for has a social media policy that says that employees should not make statements that may reflect badly on the company, say by contradicting the company’s stated policies.
In other words, the media company itself has effectively censored my free speech. The company has decided that I cannot express myself freely to you.
The ideal of press freedom was designed to ensure that the powerful forces in society do not have the capacity to manipulate information and use it to influence their will over the public. The ideal was that if anyone has power over information it should be the public itself.
Well, it doesn’t work like that anymore. Right now the newspapers’ greatest influence is a handful of major companies, which hold the highest advertising budgets. Telecoms and beer. The newspapers are framed to deliver as many customers to these companies as possible. At least competition between different media companies should lead to diversification, right? No. The Monitor and New Vision are the same paper. They have the same headline stories, the same features sections, the same everything except the political bias. Vision tries to not be too blatantly pro-government, Monitor throws shit in the government’s yard.
This is because they are both trying to catch the same person, you, and deliver your attention to the same person, MTN. That is why they are as diverse as two bodas on the same stage whistling at you calling you Uncle or Aunty.
The free press ideal was a good one on paper. But in the end it flopped. That is why when I saw the demonstrators with the masking tape over their moustaches I just smiled. We treat Freedom of The Press as if it were some divine decree, some dogma of goodness, some sacred tenet of truth. The Red Pepper? They make a living publishing deliberate lies and slander and smut. People say, “Oh, there is always a grain of truth.” That’s like a guy who beats you and you say, “Well, he pays school fees for the children.” The Red Pepper?
If the freedom of press ideal is to work, it needs to be revamped. I imagine something like this:
1. First, it is free. No one pays for it. The only costs to the consumer are what it takes to get from home to the place where the press is.
2. Second, we all pay for it. As in the costs of making and running it are from the public making anonymous contributions of whatever size because they believe that this enterprise must succeed.
3. No barriers to entry. Anyone can go and speak. The information will be rigidly and constantly peer-reviewed so if anyone says anything that is false it will be quickly and summarily corrected.
4. No opinions. Opinions and entertainment go and find another platform. They are not press. They are something else. In fact, sell entertainment. Make some money.
5. No “news”. As in this practice of certain information being valuable only for a period of time and then becoming stale has to go. Let the press give you history starting from the current point backwards. The story of Sejusa, for example: If you go to the press today you get the whole story from the beginning to now. If you go tomorrow, the whole story from beginning to then.
I know, it is creepy right? I also got quite a shock when I realised what I had just done.
Yeah. I just described Wikipedia as the perfect model of the Free Press.