Six things 2020 taught us about journalism and how media in Uganda can apply them in 2021 

By Benon Herbert Oluka

In a year when the COVID-19 pandemic nearly ground the world to a halt for a considerable part of the 12 months, I conversely had more opportunities to engage with journalists and media organizations in Uganda, Africa and around the world than ever before.

Despite the pandemic, I facilitated more than two dozen trainings, moderated or spoke at no less than a dozen webinars and online workshops and engaged with different groups of journalists on the challenges facing the profession; the opportunities; and observed trends that are emerging and can offer respite for a profession under siege.

And what did I gather from those engagements, discussions and observations? There were lessons aplenty, which I have outlined below.

Collaborations can foster great journalism

There is a competitive edge to Ugandan journalism that sometimes makes the interactions between journalists from competing media houses almost adversarial. Ditto the relationship between media houses. It is healthy to want to be the one that always breaks particular stories – but there are also immense benefits that can be reaped from working together.

Some stories cannot be produced by particular media houses alone. It would require a pooling of resources to achieve impact. That’s why it was remarkable to see four leading television channels – UBC, NTV, NBS, and Urban TV – come together on December 18, 2020, to produce a joint news bulletin to sensitize the public about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such collaborations should be extended to areas like investigative journalism, where there is still a dearth of stories. In a conversation with Solomon Serwanjja, whose investigative reports have won him ACME awards and the BBC’s Komla Dumor Award among others, he spoke of having hitherto tried to get other local media organizations to collaborate on investigations in vain.

“Many times, I have tried to collaborate with other investigative journalists on a project and oftentimes they would say, ‘No, we can’t do this, we can’t do that,” he said. “But many of the big investigative stories that have been done globally have been out of collaboration, for example, the Panama Papers.”

Serwanjja is onto something. We can leverage the different strengths of our different media organizations every now and then to produce the kind of journalism that serves the greater public good.

There is strength and safety in numbers

For a long time now, government agencies have found it easy to isolate individual journalists and torment them. There could not have been a more graphical representation of that than this bone-chilling 2018 video of soldiers surrounding photojournalist James Akena and beating him while he was on his knees and with hands raised up in surrender.

Perhaps thinking that they could get away with whatever they pleased, the authorities took it a notch higher with the wanton brutality on journalists during the campaigns for the 2021 general elections – including the shooting of journalists such as Ashraf Kasirye – and the decision to use illegitimate means to force journalists to register before they could cover the elections.

Facing the possibility of being locked out of covering elections, media organizations came together and sued the Media Council of Uganda. Although the verdict came a little too late, the fact that the journalism bodies secured a court victory points to the gains that the media industry can make in working together to protect its turf.

We hope that in 2021 and beyond, there will be even more synergy and unity in diversity among media houses and media support organizations regarding advocating for issues that affect journalism.

Non-profit journalism models can offer a valuable alternative

Traditional media organizations such as Vision Group and Monitor Publications Limited have dominated Uganda’s media landscape by trying to be everything to everyone. They have sought to serve just about every audience segment in the market. But as these media organizations shrink on account due to a shift in the media landscape, they have ceded ground that new entrants are quickly taking up by offering much more specialized products.

One of the models that is quickly taking root is the emergence of non-profit media outlets. For instance, we have seen Uganda Radio Network grow its reporting footprint across the country to a point where they are supplying their much more established counterparts such as NMG Uganda and The Observer newspaper with content.

Other non-profit media outfits that have emerged and are doing impressive journalism work are InfoNile, whose work recognized on the continent last year, Storyteld, which is focusing on video & online platforms to tell its stories, and the East African Centre for Investigative Reporting (EACIR), which has a content sharing agreement with Daily Monitor. One to watch for the future is the African Institute for Investigative Journalism (AIIJ), which has the potential to expand beyond Uganda’s borders and grow a continental footprint.

The above examples of journalism non-profits that have emerged to occupy the space vacated by traditional media houses, or have specialized on particular reporting areas, should serve to encourage journalists who feel that legacy media is dropping the ball in covering the issues they are passionate about. Develop something and fill that vacuum.

New reporting tools can take your journalism to the next level

In most of my training sessions around the country, I often show examples of some of the best journalism that is being done around the world using the latest digital reporting tools. I then ask the journalists if it is possible to replicate the same kind of reporting within Uganda.

Often, the answer is that it is not. But when I show the same trainees some stories done by one or two Ugandan journalists using similar tools, then the tune changes to, “Yes, it can be done, but the major problem is that we don’t have access to such tools.”

Yet it is just a question of knowing where to look. The Internet has leveled the journalism playing field to a great extent. Most of the tools that are available to the best journalists at The New York Times, The Guardian, the BBC, etc, are now a click of a button away from someone who is doing their reporting for Bunyoro TV in Kagadi district or Nenah FM in Moroto district. And like this online investigation toolkit by Bellingcat, most of those resources are available free of charge to journalists in Uganda and anywhere else in the world.

The challenge then is on us journalists to learn more about such tools, self-educate and begin to use them in order to take our journalism to the next level. Otherwise, if one does not strive to keep up with the trends, we will be left behind in 2021 and beyond.

Pick and area and become an expert at it

In the past, a journalist could get through merely by being a generalist journalist. This was mainly because journalists had a near-monopoly of access to the kind of information that they needed to use to develop stories. 

For instance, a parliamentary reporter could go to the House, pick documents from a committee, keep them for a few days and then “break” a story three days after they first got access to the information. Today, the same information is likely to be leaked on social media by one of the clerks at Parliament before a reporter has got wind of the documents.

So where does that leave today’s reporter? It simply means that we must become even more knowledgeable about the issues we are covering so that we offer more depth to our audiences, many of whom do not need us to get most of the “breaking news” that used to be a journalists’ staple.

During the coverage of the recent campaigns and elections, for instance, there was a dearth of data journalists to explain to our audiences the different statistics that the various political groups and, more importantly, the Electoral Commission, were sharing with Ugandans in the most basic of forms. Those statistics were begging for experts to interpret them but, sadly, not many could be found in our newsrooms.

For the most practical lesson on specialization in journalism, look again at the mission of InfoNile, a geo-journalism start-up established primarily to focus on reporting about issues happening around the River Nile basin. They have picked their area of focus and are doing a darn good job of reporting about it.

More regional media support organizations necessary

One of the highlights of my work facilitating media training workshops was going to the districts of Kabale in south-western Uganda and Kitgum in the north. The journalists that we trained in the two districts could not hide their excitement in having trainers work with them in their respective backyards.

Most of the participants kept talking of how they rarely host journalism trainers in their districts and, by the end of the trainings, expressed hope that the sessions we had conducted would not be the last.

Media support organizations in Uganda do a great deal of work, often stretching themselves beyond their limits to reach as many journalists as they can every calendar year. But the reality is that most of them are based in the capital Kampala and often must parachute their experts to do trainings.

However, there are burgeoning media organizations across the country such as the Northern Uganda Media Club, West Nile Press Association, Teso-Karamoja Media Agency, etc, which could offer some basic training and media development programmes that the much bigger media support organizations are not in position to provide.

Where the much more established media organizations would come in is to develop programmes whose focus is to strengthen the capacities of their much younger cousins in the Ugandan countryside. This would ensure that journalists in far-flung regions of Uganda, many of whom are thrown into the deep end without basic training, have places to go to learn the key tenets of the profession and receive immediate mentorship on a much more regular basis.

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The author is a journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at The Observer, Daily Monitor and The East African newspapers.

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