Two weeks ago, one of Uganda’s yuppies tweeted something that triggered a firestorm of criticism on social media against news organisations. Sheila Gashumba’s tweet was brief and to the point. She said she had stopped working as a TV presenter in part because she was being paid a laughably small salary.
Social media went into overdrive, with many people saying that news organisations are exploiting their employees (which some do). Others told the yuppie that many young people start on small salaries, and once they have made their name and got to that stage where opportunities are looking for them—as opposed to young people looking for opportunities—they can land plum jobs and earn much more.
Few things are more demoralising than working hard and not knowing how your bills will be footed because you earn a mere pittance. It makes a complete nonsense of paid work. You start to wonder whether you are really any different from those who are unemployed.
For people working in the media industry, poor pay makes things even uglier. Journalists get to meet and hobnob with important people. They have the privilege of talking to and dining with people that ordinary folks can only see on TV. It goes without saying that they should have decent money in their wallets—at least enough to keep their heads above water.
Yet in Uganda, the uncomfortable truth is that the pay for journalists is insanely low. It is forcing men and women who would otherwise be proper professionals to resort to unscrupulous and unethical professional behaviour to make ends meet.
I do not know how reporters and editors of Kampala’s mushrooming news sites make a living, given the fact that no one buys their news and they get almost zero advertising revenue, but I would not be surprised if some of them routinely violated professional ethics to survive.
The question of good pay is important. But how can we pay journalists well when even rich countries have a hard time paying their journalists decent salaries?
In 2015, for example, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in the United Kingdom conducted a survey that found that a career in journalism there was “unsustainable” because of poor pay.
The British example is intended to enable us to look realistically at what is doable and achievable with respect to decent and fair remuneration for journalists in a desperately poor country like Uganda.
It is hard to pay people decently simply because someone is dictating or recommending how much they should be paid. Even with the best will in the world, you cannot pay workers well if you are not making enough money.
In Uganda, as in many other places, news organisations are struggling. Precious few news organisations make money. While those that turn a profit can and should pay their workers a minimum wage, they may not be willing to do so. It would be the height of naivety to expect employers to begin, on their own, to pay a minimum wage given the capitalistic nature of commercial business.
The publisher of a major newspaper or owner of a TV station who earns a fantastically large salary does not go to bed thinking about the pittance a freelance journalist at his news organisation takes home.
The pittance is not one of the things that keep him awake at night. He is often thinking about new ways of making the business profitable.
The government, therefore, has a role to play in ensuring that workers, not just journalists but also others who are selling labour, are fairly remunerated. There has got to be a law enforcing payment of a minimum wage, especially in the case of businesses that are profitable.
Having said that, journalists also need to get their act together. In my humble opinion, journalism’s greatest threat has never been autocratic leaders clamping down on the media and press freedom. It is not fake news. It is the apparent failure by journalists to make journalism a near-indispensable product. Journalists should make journalism sell like coffee or internet bundles.
In 2009, US media scholar Robert G. Picard controversially wrote an essay saying that journalists deserve low pay. Journalists were shocked, but his arguments were hard to demolish. He said that before the advent of information technology, journalists had control over communication space and what the public received as news—and that created significant economic value for news.
Today, a far wider range of sources of news and information exist, and many people with no journalism training can do what journalists are able to do, sometimes even better. Journalists must have unique skills to sell. And they need to sell a product that the market cannot ignore. Can they?
The writer is a journalist and former
Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk