Reflecting on 2020: Seven lessons for journalists 

By Joachim Buwembo

Anything can happen anytime

We started off 2020 with lots of optimism. In a sports-loving country Uganda, we looked forward to a respectable gold harvest at the 2020 Olympics – with proven world beaters like Joshua Cheptegei and Halima Nakaayi raring to go! The long-awaited oil seemed to be getting nearer to coming out of the ground.

Then Covid-19 happened.  The 2020 Olympics are yet to happen in 2021. The first oil is still uncertain because the petroleum Final Investment Decision, being a Foreign Direct Investment – just rearranging the letters FDI to FID – is very sensitive to international shocks like the price of crude oil falling to negative at the height of the coronavirus crisis and to local political uncertainties like the violent electoral campaigns that saw over 50 people dead in one day. Specialized Sports and Energy journalists had to shift gears. Very fast.

News can be covered remotely

Both journalists and media managers have learnt that for many of the event-based stories, you do not have to travel physically to the site, although it helps if you can. Movement restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic made the world digital and sent mankind online. Almost nobody covers conferences through physical presence anymore, not even if they take place in the next building or the same building for that matter. Zoom and similar digital applications have taken over. 

You don’t have to die

Even mobile, dangerous events like Ugandan campaigns can to an extent be covered accurately without going to the frontline, with facilities like facebook live used in collaboration with players in the event. You also save time not having to move from the field to the desk, time that can be put to use gathering background on the internet and archival resources, to do a better story.

Many big stories remain untold 

A lesson learnt or yet to be learnt is that a lot of big stories remain untold. As Uganda’s Parliament for example rushed to create scores of new electoral areas stampeded by the Local Government Ministry, several constitutional lawyers were whispering around town that counties, municipalities, new cities, and others would be created alright but were time-barred to become voting areas in January 2021. Until the president rubbished the police leadership after shaking it up to appoint a new Deputy Inspector General, the public and the media had all along assumed that all was well between the previous DIGP and the appointing authority. And so on. Many tell-tell signs are not being interrogated by the journalists.

It is a sick society

If the sheer greed and disregard for procedure that the MPs displayed in the scramble for Covid cash forcing the president to scribe their conduct as “morally reprehensible” and the subsequent standard of ‘accountability’ for the trillions appropriated and borrowed for the pandemic was not enough to convince anyone about the sickness of society; if the total commercialization of elections from the criminality in the procurement of materials and services by the Electoral Commission through the sale of party tickets to aspirants “seeing the light” and pulling out of the race a few weeks to elections was also not enough to prove the sickness; then the political prostitutions by the so-called masses who are busy selling their political rights for a few shillings should not leave a journalist in any doubt that the morality plays a minimal role in decisions concerning public affairs, both for the leaders and the led.

You should be firm when the law is on your side
The Media Council, the legality of whose own status was under question, declared a vexatious cancellation of accreditations and directed that all journalists re-register, under a tight deadline, or else face arrest should they dare report on the ongoing electoral process. It also required the journalists to go through the tedious, time-consuming documentation process that most of them had just gone through earlier in the year, instead of simply asking them to confirm their continued existence and continued interest to practice as journalists. All this happened when the journalists were not even sure the media council was exercising its rightful mandate. In response to the militaristic directives of the council, journalists asked a few questions and the council started extending the deadline. The matter is far from resolved at the time of writing. Even presidential candidate John Katumba, probably younger than any practicing Ugandan journalist, advised the Media Council that their directives are not only shaming Uganda but are also undoing the positives that have been achieved by the country. The journalists are realizing the need to be firm, otherwise more unreasonable directives will follow and be implemented if they just lie down to be trampled by every other government official.

You can make money

Covid-19 has changed many things and accelerated others. Two of these are the changing format of publishing and the changing arena of advertising. Online publishing was still crawling but when covid-19 happened, it started running. Requiring minimal financial investment, formerly struggling reporters became publishers. And the previously little known native advertising got a shot in the arm. Downtrodden freelancers in Kampala who could barely gross fifty dollars a month leaped to make a few hundred dollars a month on their WordPress ‘websites’, coincidentally being early beneficiaries of the covid money! Then came the campaign money. And the advertisers are realizing that they are effective in reaching certain audience niches. They are not yet disruptors and are far from upsetting the mainstream media, and their ‘industry’ is still chaotic to an extent. But individually, the journalists are attaining financial liberation. 

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Image by Steve Raubenstine from Pixabay

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