Yes, media needs public money to survive but on what terms?

Friday April 10 2020

Odoobo C. Bichachi

Odoobo C. Bichachi 

By Odoobo C. Bichachi

Since the Minister of Finance tabled a supplementary budget request to Parliament that included, among others, a request for Shs14 billion for the ICT Ministry, there has been public hullaballoo, especially with regard to the proposal to spend most of the money on supporting media houses.

The money, according to ICT Minister Judith Nabakooba, is to keep the media houses afloat given that they have lost advertising revenue due to the lockdown and yet are doing a stellar job passing on information to the public to create awareness of the Covid-19 disease.

The public’s indignation is understandable considering that nearly every business has lost revenue due to the lockdown and may require some form of resuscitation to stay afloat. For many, picking on only the media for government support at this time appears discriminative and narrow thinking, its central role in dispersing information notwithstanding.

As they say, every dark cloud has a silver lining! The Covid-19 health crisis has enabled this government to perhaps understand the role of the media more than it had ever done before. Media is not an enemy of the State or simply an avenue for rumour-mongering. It is not a detractor or saboteur of national development when it puts corrupt government officials to task or asks question of accountability with regard to specific government programmes.

Media is a partner in the development and wellbeing of the citizens and the country. It is a source of credible information. The live telecasts the President has been able to make simultaneously across all media, the functional information about the dos and don’ts about Covid-19 published in newspapers and aired on television and radios have been invaluable as has been the popularisation of efforts by other Ugandans to create awareness of the virus through music, commentary, interviews, etc.

The media is, therefore, not just a business; it is a public service that is often taken for granted. Indeed as the President and the minister earlier read out and thanked companies and individuals that had contributed to the famous (or is it infamous) brand new 4WD vehicles and cash to the Covid-19 emergency fund, the media that has provided innumerable space in column inches and airtime was neither acknowledged, nor thanked.


It is, therefore, a welcome development that the government is considering some form of subsidy to the media for the public service role it plays. This is already done in several countries, including Denmark and Sweden subject to provisions in the media laws that regulate the conduct and ownership of the media.

Therefore, before a cheque of public money is handed over to the media honchos, there is need for a serious discussion about the commitments the media must undertake in service of the public through a new code of ethics, which media qualifies to receive public money using specific criteria, under what legal framework the money should be disbursed and with what regularity, and very importantly, government’s commitment to the principle of “arm’s length” whereby it should not seek or appear to use the subsidy to influence how the media should report.

Can these issues be fleshed out during the time of this crisis to the satisfaction of the public, media owners, media practitioners, and the government? That is the question!

Otherwise simply throwing Shs14 billion at “the media” in the circumstances we have today, will be an opportunity lost for starting a truly progressive public-private partnership (PPP) in a very crucial sector of our society as the money could end up anywhere.

So, let the conversation begin!
Enterprise journalism is the hallmark of modern day journalism in an era when breaking news is no longer a winner for media houses. On Wednesday morning, I encountered an outstanding enterprise story, not in a newspaper, not on a television channel, not in a radio broadcast. It was on social media in the form of an interview of a pilot by regular blogger Henry Mutebe. For the uninitiated, an enterprise report is “an in-depth news story that is unusual, interesting or surprising.”

One could identify a controversial or novel issue of interest to the community and write about it an interesting and unique manner. That is what Mutebe did in two parts (one being based on direct reader questions). He brought out wonderful insights about the world of flying, what is inside an aircraft’s cockpit and the mind of the pilot.

This story is indeed a good demonstration of what journalism is and who is a journalist. It is not just about a degree or diploma in mass communication, a notebook and press card! It is about what and how you communicate to the public, the medium notwithstanding. Kudos Mr Mutebe!

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