When promising journalists quit the profession

More and more good journalists are trading the profession for careers in other fields. Why is this the case and is it something to worry about? We spoke to Samuel Gummah, the Executive Director, Uganda Radio Network about this and a wide range of issues. 

  1. What can you say about the state of journalism in Uganda?

Too much can be said about the state of journalism in Uganda. Too many good things have happened but there is a long way to go. Most importantly, we have more journalists than ever before. We have seen a steady increment in the number of female journalists, both in the field and in top editorial positions. We have also seen a steady decline in the number of older people in journalism. While on one hand, we are celebrating the steady increase in the number of people, we are also concerned about the fact that the new people are getting into newsrooms that are largely inexperienced. In general, institutional memory is not strong, we do not have lots of mentors and that leaves the young people vulnerable to the challenges that every journalist in the field faces. 

  1. What contribution does journalism make to the development efforts of the country?

What we can say about journalism is probably what we find in some scriptures, where it is said that without wisdom, people perish. Without journalism, nations perish. If there was no journalism, there would probably be no development at all. Journalism literally makes the daybreak and the sunset. It gives us orientation, sets agendas, reflects on failures and records history. Journalism is what makes nations strong. In many ways, a nation is a reflection of its journalism. In olden times when we had the world divided into two poles, the west and the east and we had two ideological dichotomies, you had journalism on one side defining what that ideological block was. Right now, if you look at any country, you just simply look at its journalism and you will be able to tell at what stage of development it is. Many people think Uganda is a transitional society and one way to determine whether we are actually transiting is to look at our journalism. There is no going forward unless journalism is functional. 

  1. Has liberalization of the media done anything to improve the quality and contribution of journalism?

Liberalisation was a mixed bag. Whether you look at it in terms of what happened to our parastatals or in terms of journalism. But for the media sector, most of us would not be working if it wasn’t for liberalisation. Like everything else, quantity is only one part of the story. The quality is still a long way to go. 

  1. What is your comment on the ownership of media in the country?

There are two things to be said about ownership of the media. How much does the ownership of the media reflect the diversity of the country? Are we better off having this ownership controlled or determined by legislation or are we better off having it free enterprise? We have had a chance to taste both and I think it is clear that leaving ownership of the media to the forces of capitalism has only served us partially. So we have a lot of media but it is not necessarily as diverse and reflective of the entire diversity of the country. Can legislation fix that? We are not sure because the only legislation we had before were preventing any kind of ownership apart from state ownership. Maybe if we can have a combination of the two; if we could have legislation that allows for ownership and keeps tabs on the level of diversity. 

  1. We have recently seen many promising/good journalists leaving the newsroom. Why do you think this is the case and is it something to worry about? If yes, how can this trend be reversed?

Whoever wants to leave journalism should be given the chance to leave. The problem is if they are leaving simply because journalism can not keep them or journalism is not providing them sufficient expression capacity to develop or grow. The ceiling in many media houses is too low that if you come in as a young enterprising journalist, it takes less than three years for some people to become editors.  And after you have become an editor, what next? Since the ceiling is that short, it becomes difficult for many media houses to keep the young promising journalists. Should we worry about that? Yes and no! Many new young journalists, if they do not find older mentors, it will become difficult for journalism to thrive. But I do not think I would concern myself too much with it if the media houses that stay behind were about to provide the environment, the capacity and the overall progress that the young people need, especially if they are able to compensate the professional work that journalists do in order to feel appreciated and for the content to continue to flow in the hearts and minds of the citizens. 

  1. What is your comment on the support that journalism receives from the general public, Ugandan society? Do they understand the role of the media and support its cause?

We keep getting occasions where we see an outpouring of support for journalism from ordinary people and from civil society. But we have not seen this consistent and continuous. In short, our social contract as journalists with the ordinary person in the country is not yet constituted. We only become appreciated on occasions and that is not enough. It is very important that the understanding and appreciation that journalism does for society is consistent and continuous. Short of that, it becomes difficult for journalism to survive. Bot just economically, but simply getting support for journalists in the field not to be beaten. If journalism can not be seen to be working for the interest of the people, it becomes difficult for journalism to survive. It must be consistently seen to be working for the interest of the people. 

  1. We have recently seen an increase in abuse of the basic rights of journalists in Uganda. What do you think causes this and how can it be prevented?

Abuse of rights is general, because when the rights of journalists are being abused, then the rights of ordinary people have been abused multiple times. Just like freedom of the media is directly linked to freedom of expression, we can not just see the rights of journalists respected and upheld if the rights of ordinary citizens are not being respected. It is very important that journalists are able to speak for themselves, but most of the time, the rights of journalists are defended by other sources of support such as the ordinary person. If the ordinary person understands and respects the role that the journalists play in the interest of the public, then the rights of journalists will be respected. I think it goes back to how far our society has gone in understanding the role of journalism in building the nation. 

  1. We see a growth in online platforms and citizen journalism in the country, which some argue is affecting the quality, trust and confidence on media and journalism. What is your take?

Journalism has been challenged by different platforms since time immemorial and it has thrived. Right now what is being challenged is not journalism itself but information and the speed at which information gets into the hands of people. What is being challenged is how much rumour can get into the hands and ears of people, compared to filtered information. The more you have misinformation, it becomes difficult for filtered information to be believed.  What we have seen in countries where these platforms have existed much longer and where they have proliferated deeper than Uganda, it reaches an extent where people go back to look for old trusted and edited information for comparison. And if journalism doesn’t pay attention to the fact that by competing with these social media platforms, we lose the important bit, which is providing that backbone on which people can rely for information that is trustworthy, then we will end up losing journalism. The danger is really not the existence of these channels, but journalism losing its identity in an attempt to compete with these channels. 

  1. Please comment on the training of journalists in Uganda, and its contribution to professionalism and quality of the profession.

There is a lot to be said about the quality of the training and the experience and the capacity of the training institutions but there is also a lot to be said about the important synergy between media houses and the training institutions. Journalism is both a profession, an academic discipline, but it is also a craft and in order to get the best of it, we need the training institutions to have some synergistic relationship with the practical journalism institutions in order to produce the best. So far, this link is not yet strong enough. 

  1. Would you encourage a young person to join journalism in Uganda today?

I would encourage my son to join journalism in Uganda today. I would encourage anyone who cares about progress, about the world to join journalism. With teachers and journalists, the world will go on 

Videos by Joshua Mitala

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