By Edris Kiggundu
The suspension of two journalists at Baba TV over their satirical criticism of Parliament has exposed the lopsided nature of the relationship between media organisations and the institutions and powerful people they are supposed to cover.
Journalists are often taught that their role is, among others, to investigate the activities of public institutions and to be the “eyes and ears of the public”. They are also constantly reminded that they are “the voice of the voiceless.”
This unwritten contract between journalists and the public is the foundation of good and solid journalism. Today, however, the precarious economic situation faced by many traditional media organisations and the growing influence of social media platforms as purveyors of ‘news’ threatens this bedrock of professional journalism
A senior editor at one of the daily newspapers recently told me that the instinct to survive at all costs has led many media organisations to abandon journalism ethos and ethics. It has forced many to pander to political, economic and other persuasions in order to stay afloat.
“Nowadays it is about chasing the money and this comes at a cost. Advertisers and other key players are now calling the shots and determining how their stories should be angled. As a journalist, deep down I know this is wrong, but what can we do? How shall we tell the stories when we are dead?” he wondered.
My former editor and mentor, James Tumusiime, summed up the predicament of privately owned media organisations in Uganda and elsewhere in a 2016 paper titled ‘A non-profit approach to market-driven journalism challenges in Uganda: A case study of Uganda Radio Network’.
Tumusiime surmised: “The political and economic realities of Uganda have increasingly made it tricky for traditional privately owned media businesses to make a profit and at the same time act as an effective fourth estate with the noble public duty of propelling the country towards better governance and social development.”
He argued that a non-profit approach to media operations could be the solution.
But media business is tricky.
Unlike other private businesses where the owners determine how to run them, individual members of the public feel they must have a say in the way media organisations, even privately owned ones, manage their affairs. As a result, media walk the fine line between making money and delivering the kind of information or news that the public expects them to provide, irrespective of the risks involved.
Which brings us back to the suspension of the Baba TV journalists.
Simon Muyanga Lutaaya, one of the suspended Baba TV journalists, said in an interview that he suspected that the fear of losing out on advertising deals from Parliament informed management’s decision to suspend them.
“One of our bosses told us that ‘we were going to make the TV lose business’ because of our ‘careless’ satire,” Muyanga said, adding that he had consequently tendered his resignation.
He said the initial decision had been for them to simply apologize to the leadership of Parliament and for matters end there, but later the terms changed.
Muyanga believes that the situation could have been handled better, but Parliament’s overbearing influence on Baba TV tilted the balance in its favour.
Baba TV is owned by Moses Balyeku, the former Jinja West MP affiliated to the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, who may have ambitions to reclaim his seat in 2026. It is possible that he does not want to antagonize some ‘powerful people’.
Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why many media organisations cannot effectively play their oversight role is because of the nature of their ownership.
While I do not have the exact figures, I am aware that many private media companies in Uganda are either owned by business people or individuals closely allied to the ruling NRM. These people can easily be cajoled or threatened by State agencies for “bad coverage” leaving them with little option but to yield to the demands of those with power, however unfavourable the demands.
Dr Peter Mwesige, a media scholar and former executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) wrote in a 2010 article that some media owners, especially those solely pre-occupied with making profit, were in some cases, a danger to press freedom.
“As long as media owners continue viewing their radio stations and newspapers purely as business enterprises, without any serious consideration for their public service role, freedom of expression and press freedom will continue being sacrificed at the altar of profit,” he wrote after CBS Radio was re-opened following a brief shutdown in 2010.
Is all lost?
Media owners and managers can still find ways to push back against interference to the enjoyment of media freedom.
In the specific case of Baba TV, management should have stood by its journalists and insisted that they broke no law. They should have made it clear to the leadership of Parliament that the institution is a public entity funded by tax payers and therefore it is not immune to scrutiny or criticism.
Baba TV could also have made it known that if Parliament felt offended by their coverage, there are other mechanisms they could use to seek redress.
This is the tactic The Observer newspaper used when in 2013 the then Speaker Rebecca Kadaga decided to bar its journalists, Sulaiman Kakaire and David Tash Lumu, from Parliament over what she termed as “biased reporting” against her. Amid pressure and threats, The Observer management stuck to its guns and engaged several players until its relationship with Parliament thawed.
Secondly, media associations such as the National Association of Broadcasters and Uganda Journalists Association need to be pro-active and intervene on the side of their members such as Baba TV whenever they come under threat. Using their collective voice and influence, these associations can engage all parties and an amicable situation can be reached.
In the Baba TV case, the bodies have been conspicuously silent.
With all said, I believe the bottom line is for media owners and managers to develop a thick skin and push back against this unbecoming interference by state actors and other powerful institutions, the costs notwithstanding.
About the author: Edris Kiggundu is the executive editor of The Story Idea, a non-profit news organization that promotes coverage of climate change issues. Kigedris1@gmail.com