By David Lumu
It had been coming for many years. But the Covid-19 pandemic put a fine point on the impending Armageddon that hovers over the horizon of good old journalism as we have known it. It struck a deathly blow to media house revenues, highlighting just how feeble our livelihoods are; it allowed the security forces to stomp on our freedom with arrests, beatings and detentions; and it exposed our internal inadequacies by unmasking our failure, once again, to hold the powerful accountable.
Newspaper sales figures have been nose-diving in every corner of the world, including our own. This, we had already come to accept and had initiated measures to help us cope. What we had never foreseen was a time when circumstances would conspire to simultaneously shut our readers behind closed doors for two months and counting, and, hit our advertisers right in the knees. It was worse than a rude awakening; it was traumatic. For we now know that even when the lockdown is lifted and readers can pick newspapers off the streets, they have been given a crash course on how to wean themselves from our print copies.
The efficacy of our digital media solutions was tested and while they weathered the storm, they were found wanting a little too many times. We sent readers links for our online copies only for them to find links that failed to load and online editions that occasionally did not download. A silver lining could be that our readership has learned that there is a convenient way of accessing your favourite newspaper as it appears in print by a simple tap on the phone. Whether they will choose to stay is another matter altogether.
Covid-19 officiated a new journalism age in which we were forced to adapt to survive. We became acquainted with interviews on Zoom; we filed stories in our bedrooms; at short notice, we became multi-skilled so we could weather the storm.
When our readership dropped, and our advertisers’ knees softened like jelly; the newsroom bean counters were quick to sort the wheat from the chaff. Out went the journalists considered to be excess to requirements; in came pay cuts, forced leave without pay, and restructuring.
Kampala’s worst kept secret is that a journalist’s pay cheque is hardly worth the ink used to print it. When journalists return home, few of them park cars in their garages and rest their pistons until the next day. They retire to families that require nutritious meals, but even before Covid-19 many struggled to put three solid meals on the family dining table. In the Covid-19 special season, many journalists have simply not had the luxury to take home the bacon. There they were, fulfilling the biblical dictum: “the person who has nothing, even the little that he has will be taken away from him”.
Then news leaked that the Uganda Parliamentary Journalists Association had paid journalists Ushs100,000 each, causing an uproar because monetary gifts are always the first step on the road of undermined journalistic independence. Good people never bite hands that feed them, and it would be too much to expect that reporters at parliament who accepted the money would turn around and challenge the very institution that sent them a lifeline during the pandemic.
Few things highlighted the perceived value of the media as the security forces’ early treatment of journalists when the government announced the lockdown. Members of the Local Defence Units beat and detained journalists, blocking them from moving about because they did not consider the media an essential service. Even when the police leadership affirmed that journalists were essential workers, media freedom civil society organizations continued to report cases of the security forces assaulting journalists. This compounded the hazardous nature of media practice in Uganda that had made carrying a recorder and camera one of the choicest tickets to a beating.
A lot of our reportage about the pandemic has fallen below our own standards. In the search of truth to fight disinformation about the disease, we have more than lent the government a platform to state its case. We have turned into a secondary government public relations arm that regurgitates what the executive says and we have barely asked questions. When directives have been issued, we have published them without scrutiny or interpretation for the public. When security forces have enforced public health regulations, we have not interrogated their use of excessive force or analysed if they went beyond their mandate. And we remain largely silent on effect of the anti-Covid-19 measures on the provision of other emergency health services.
One day, a history of how Covid-19 changed the world will be written. In there will be a tiny footnote about how it affected the media in Uganda. The footnote may just as well read like a eulogy.
*The writer is a journalist with New Vision