A few weeks ago my friend Richard Kavuma quit journalism. Rimkav, as everyone knows him, and whose last newsroom job was as Editor of the Observer newspaper, was easily the most solid journalist of our generation.
After two decades in the newsroom, Rimkav decided he’d had enough of the stress, the long hours and the low pay, and decided to settle for a more reasonable and family-friendly job in communications.
He will no longer have to work weekends and public holidays. He will not have to field angry and threatening phone calls from exposed crooks. He will not have to worry about court summonses and defamation lawsuits. In other words, Rimkav can now live a normal life.
Journalists around the world yesterday celebrated the World Press Freedom Day. To say celebrated, however, is a bit of a misnomer, for journalism is in trouble, generally, and press freedom is under threat.
In Kampala, the police, named as the worst offender of media freedom for the fourth year running, firmed up that reputation by arresting a few journalists under unclear circumstances.
There are many threats to media freedom. Some, like assaults on journalists, the recent kidnap of a young television journalist, and the daily threats from those in power are clear abuses of law. Others, such as the recent decision by Parliament to give the responsible minister carte blanche to pass regulations for the media without legislative oversight, are legal minefields.
Others, such as the disruption in the media industry and its underlying business models, are existential and an almost inevitable consequence of the march of technology and the wave of innovation.
These are not peculiar to Uganda. In fact, compared to many countries, including many in the neighbourhood like Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan, Ugandan journalists are relatively free. It is not to say that it can’t – or shouldn’t – be better, but to acknowledge that it could be much worse.
But an oft-ignored threat to media freedom, and one that is perhaps more pronounced in Ugandan newsrooms is the inability to hang onto talented and experienced journalists who can produce compelling and credible journalism that society values and is willing to pay for.
Ugandan journalism is caught in a catch-22 situation: the relatively small size of the market and the economy makes it difficult for media houses to train, pay and retain their best journalists; but the inevitable departure of those journalists, often to better-paying, less-stressful, communications jobs, erodes experience and institutional memory, weakens the quality of Ugandan journalism and keeps the market small.
Consider, for instance, that although this newspaper was founded only 25 years ago, none of its original cohort of journalists is still on the staff. But that’s not the whole story; the young journalists that the founders recruited and trained in the decade between its founding and its change in shareholding have almost all left.
Some, like Jim Mugunga, Andrew Mwenda, Onapito Ekomoloit, Loy Nabeta, Lindah Nabusayi, Laura Mulenga, Fideri Kirungi, and others went to public relations or lobbying. Others, like Semujju Nganda, turned to politics. By press time we could not confirm reports that some, less known, might have turned to crime.
Ugandan journalism thus finds itself in the unique and unenviable position of having some of its best talent outside the newsroom. While some, like Simwogerere Kyazze, Peter Mwesige, George Lugalambi, Charlotte Kaweesa et al still dabble in teaching and training, it is like a football team with a great medical team but with young and inexperienced players.
Of course there are plenty of promising young journalists in the newsrooms today, and the departure of the old wood of course gives opportunities for green shoots of talent to emerge but these saplings often lack the older trees on which to lean for experience.
Folks smarter than your columnist will have to figure out how best to keep talent within the newsroom but citizens must understand the need for good journalism, and be willing to pay for it.
This is easier said than done in a world of free alternatives, and where people expect information to be free, but few societies have progressed without the free flow of ideas, and with freedom of thought, expression and the media.
Citizens are willing to pay for good journalism and good journalism will pay for good journalists to stay in the newsroom. The alternative to this is to ask the last journalist to switch off the lights when they leave the newsroom.
Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi. firstname.lastname@example.org &Twitter: @Kalinaki