BY BENON HERBERT OLUKA
Criticism of the respective decisions by former Daily Monitor managing editor Don Wanyama and investigations editor Chris Obore – among others – to quit journalism for government jobs have continued to dominate discussions on social media and beyond.
After observing this for a while, I want to offer an unsolicited view from the vantage point of someone with more than a decade of journalism practice.
Initially, I didn’t study journalism. I studied human resource management (so don’t get surprised to see me swap media for HR some day). But I was drawn to print journalism by my passion for the written word and using it to disseminate information to the public.
However, after 12 years of practising journalism, of putting myself in the firing line to break some big stories, the reaction of the Ugandan readership sometimes makes me wonder whether I am making as much impact as I think my work should, whether – at the end of the day – it’s worth making the sacrifices I make to practice journalism to the best of my ability.
These, I believe, are the issues Obore (now Director of Communications, Parliament of Uganda) and Wanyama (Senior Press Secretary in the office of the President), both of who were in the media trenches before me, must have grappled with at some point before leaving the newsroom for jobs for which the public now vilifies them.
As the investigations editor at Daily Monitor for several years, Obore broke some of the biggest stories in the land on corruption, intrigue in government departments, financial mismanagement, abuse of office, name it. But beyond the tweets and Facebook shares, those stories were almost always forgotten by the next week –or even the next day.
So before you criticise Obore or Wanyama (today’s poster children of the many journalists who have moved on from the vocation), you have to ask yourself this very important question; “As a concerned Ugandan, what civic action did you take on any of the many issues that these journalists investigated and exposed during their time?”
Civic action, which can include public protests, boycotts, lobbying legislators, taking legal action or voting in elections, can be undertaken by an individual or a group of people to address issues of public concern.
If you did not take any civic action to make the government or its officials accountable for the many wrongs that journalists exposed, then don’t you think these journalists could have at some point became fatigued doing the same things without getting any reaction from the public that they wrote for? Before you say they betrayed you by “crossing to the other side” as we like to say in Uganda, don’t you think they could have felt betrayed by passive public responses to the many issues they raised?
There is no doubt that Wanyama and Obore courted their fair share of controversy while in the media and have disappointed many of those who respected their previous work by the sudden turnaround to work for a government they previously criticised. In fact, even the duo’s handling of their change of vocation has rubbed many more people the wrong way. But that should not blind us to the reality of what the public apathy to the media’s contribution to Ugandan society is doing to journalists across the country.
We already operate in difficult circumstances that include poor pay, long working hours, harassment by security and other government agencies, corruption by some in our ranks, etc. To then face public indifference to your work on an almost daily basis could deflate the morale of even the most passionate journalists.
This is why I plead that the next time you read a story that a journalist has investigated, the least you could do is to follow up on that matter and ensure that the story sparks a positive change in our society.
Short of that, we will all move in circles until, at some point, either the journalists or the passive readers will get fatigued and jump ship. Either way, journalism loses, Uganda loses, and the bad guys orchestrating evil deeds in our society, win.
The other criticism labelled against journalists who have left the profession is that they have betrayed their readers and followers of their work to go after money. Of course we conveniently forget that media practitioners are professionals who studied their vocations so that they could earn a living from them.
If you want these professionals to continue earning a living by informing you through the media, then the solution is simple. You need to support them by buying their products.
Dear reader, if you were to be honest with yourself, how regularly do you buy a newspaper? When was the last time you bought a newspaper from Monday to Sunday? If you are not supporting the media by buying its products, then you might understand why some of the industry’s best eventually move on to do other things, including taking up jobs in government.
For a country with a population of nearly 40 million people, the clearest pointer to the challenges facing the media is the fact that all the newspapers in the country combined (New Vision, Daily Monitor, The Observer, Bukedde, etc) do not gross daily sales of 100,000 copies.
How will these media houses pay their bills while also ensuring that their journalists are comfortable enough to do good journalism?
Although journalists often join the profession out of passion, the reality is that they eventually grow up to have children, families and the demands of being providers. And if the media does not support them to do this, they may move on to other jobs that offer them the capacity to fulfil their obligations to their dependants.
Those are the realities we often don’t talk about. So if you want your country’s best journalists to remain motivated to do their best, at least do these two things, if nothing else:-
(1) When you read a story they publish or broadcast, organise groups to demand action from those responsible – until action is taken. Don’t just share the story on your Facebook page and write “LOL”.
(2) Buy newspapers off the stands so that we can pay our bills and finance good journalism. Good journalism costs money. Good journalism doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
The writer is an award-winning journalist with The Observer