Covid-19 sounds the death knell for local language newspapers

Three local language newspapers that were staples of news consumption in Uganda have been closed indefinitely. Orumuri, Etop and Rupiny, published by media conglomerate Vision Group, are no more.

Ms Barbara Kaija, the Vision Group Editor-in-Chief, says the closure of the weekly newspapers was long overdue as it was no longer sustainable to keep them on the market.

“The cost of production was beyond what we could manage,” Kaija says. “Publishing a newspaper involves importation of paper and ink. Sometimes the cost was subsidised by the New Vision newspaper, but it was also not making enough money to sustain all the three outlets.”

Orumuri, which was first printed in 1989, was published in Runyankole-Rukiga with its primary audience in the greater western Uganda region. Etop, the Soroti-based Ateso newspaper, whose primary circulation was in Ateso speaking districts, was due to celebrate its 30-year anniversary before publication was suspended. Rupiny, published in Luo and serving the greater northern Uganda region, was first published in 1994 and made a name by providing vital news and information about the insurgency led by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

According to Kaija, the decision to close the newspapers was not taken lightly. She says they contributed not only to the growth of the economy, but also played a key role in the survival of local languages.

“If a local language is spoken and not written, we lose a lot. We are losing the library of local languages. These newspapers were a resource and reference point for learners” she says. “I think government should make efforts for suitability of the local language papers in written form.”

A portent of things to come?

At the start of the economic downturn prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Vision Group announced wage cuts, furloughs and the temporary suspension of the three newspapers. In late May, a final decision was taken to end publication. The staff were notified that operations would not resume after the lockdown and were issued termination letters.

While the closure of the publications cannot be directly attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, the associated fallout certainly hastened their end.

For media watchers, the writing was on the wall for some time. In its 2018-19 annual report, Vision Group listed a range of operational risks that would likely affect its profitability and market share. Among them were declining advertising revenues, increased newsprint prices, unfavorable taxation policies and the increase in ‘disruptive technologies’ and content sharing platforms.

These challenges are not unique to Vision Group. However the company’s decision to close three of its four local language newspapers is an ominous sign of the future of print media in Uganda.

Shortly after coronavirus containment measures were implemented, several media outlets suspended publication of print editions. These include The Independent magazine, Kampala Sun, The Red Pepper weekend editions and Nation Media Group’s bi-weekly sports newspaper, Ennyanda.

Mr Joseph Were, Managing Editor of The Independent, says an early decision was taken to publish the magazine online only because of the lockdown.

“We realized that even if we produced the magazine, it was getting difficult to deliver it to our clients because the country was on lockdown,” he says. “Even when we opted to deliver to homes, some of our subscribers did not want to get in contact with outsiders.”

Were says the absence of a print edition led to a surprising growth of the magazine’s audience.

“Our readership has grown. Instead of mere thousands who subscribe to the print magazine, we were counting hundreds of thousands online,” he reveals.

Managers of The Red Pepper, Ennyanda and The Independent all say they expect to produce print editions once the situation normalises.

Fired journalists speak out

Inevitably the shutdown of the newspapers has rendered numerous people jobless. Most had expected to return to work at the end of the coronavirus containment period.

“It was a big shock as it came on short notice, ” says Mr Robert Okwir who has worked as an editor at Rupiny for more than a decade. “I still do not know what to do with myself, because my whole life has revolved around the job.”

Okwir says more than 200 people depended on the newspaper for their livelihood and that their “lives have been interrupted”. He is also concerned that the large audience that relied on Rupiny for news and information tailored to their needs will have no one to fill this gap.

“I would advise the government to consider taking over the running of the regional newspapers through the ICT ministry, so they do not deprive the local communities of the vital information that they have been receiving,” he says.

An editor at Orumuri who requested anonymity for fear of antagonising his former employer, says that although his termination came as a shock, he understands that Vision Group needed to make changes.

“If the businesses were not making money, the company has a right to close,” he says. “We are looking for other jobs …  Before I joined Vision group, there was someone else in my position, so I did not think I was indispensable.”

For Ms Rhoda Adite, a freelance reporter with Etop, the closure of the newspaper has hit her hard.

“Every week I earned at least Ushs 80,000 for my articles, but that income stream has been cut off,” she laments. “It is worse now because of the ban on public gatherings, meaning I am not earning from my other job as a sign language interpreter.”

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