Why does journalism need to be saved?

Emilly Comfort Maractho

What you need to know:

  • There was a period, its biggest problem was the nature of state-media relations, where the state came down hard on journalists. The debates were on censorship and control. This has not gone to rest.

The Uganda Media Sector Working Group (UMSWG) has organised an event to commemorate the World Press Freedom day on  May 5, in Kampala. A keynote address titled ‘Saving Journalism from the digital siege’, will be delivered by Mr Robert Kabushenga, former chief executive officer of Vision Group.

The sentiment that journalism needs saving has grown. It has possibly grown because the evidence of journalism’s imminent death is often before us, in ways that it was not a decade ago.  I knew journalism was in serious trouble when one day someone asked at a public event, if we even still needed journalism or whether it can be saved at all.

Digitisation is increasingly seen as the biggest contributor to the struggles of journalism and lack of sustainability of media in our context, and globally some newspapers have folded.  Yet, journalism has always needed saving, from one thing or another. There was a period, its biggest problem was the nature of state-media relations, where the state came down hard on journalists. The debates were on censorship and control. This has not gone to rest.

After liberalisation, the threat would then be seen as tendencies of conglomeration, where ownership was concentrated in a few hands of private businesses, government, or politicians in the ruling party in our case. The ownership debate remains hovering, with no solutions in sight. 

Big business and advertising at some point were seen as major threats to editorial independence and diversity of voices in media. Co-optation, censure and silence became a big part of our journalism. What would pass as good journalism became far and between. These concerns remain, overall.

Lately, the citizen is the enemy of journalism for some. The proliferation of fake news, netizens’ capture of information sharing, the move of advertising revenue to online and technology companies, and citizen journalists are all making the life of the professional journalist difficult, it appears. As a result, the trust in news media keeps going down.

Then, we have difficulty dealing with the emerging challenges, especially from a regulatory point of view. It can simply be overwhelming. So this year, it is not surprising, that the commemorative World Press Freedom Day, the global event to be held in Arusha on  May 3, is also themed around ‘media under digital siege’.

There have been varying degrees of blame. For most people, the journalist today is a problem, with no capacity like those of old. They have no depth. I have heard quite some frames on this matter, I dare not repeat. For others, the media itself, is a joke – what exists is just business, which can thrive without pretending to be media. The concepts of journalism, media and communication would all do well with re-conceptualisation and stretching a little.

Listening to some critics of journalism and the media, it seems like things have gone so wrong and we admit, we have a long way to go. Yet, we keep making demands of journalism that go beyond their call of duty.

I am reading a book edited by Charles Onyango Obbo, for all intents and purposes, a giant of journalism in the region. The book, Pioneers, rebels, and afew villains: 150 years of journalism in Eastern Africa’  the most incredible story of the evolution of journalism in the region I have read.

While acknowledging the challenges of journalists, Obbo suggests that the ‘madness’ of journalism could be in the system. He notes that, one of their hopes was that the lives and work of media workers in the book, the missing ones, and the quest for why African journalists continue to put their necks in perilous environments will spur ‘further exploration and get a younger generation of journalists and creators of content to tell their stories in new ways’.

The stories out of Eastern Africa, covering Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritria, Ethiopia, Somalia, DR Congo, among others, tells of the depth of the madness in the system. It is easy, to continue blaming everyone, especially journalists, without appreciating the problems at hand and current affordances.

Recent studies by the Aga Khan University on media viability in Uganda painted the picture of a complex political environment as well as a small economy that in turn has affected the way journalism is done and the viability of media in general.

There are numerous examples of a rather perilous environment, that as we look at the pitfalls of the digital era, we should not lose sight of. For instance, a few days ago, a report by the Human Rights Network for Journalists painted yet another grim picture of the environment in which journalists operate. A 2021 report by African Centre for Media Excellence, a portrait of Ugandan journalists in turbulent times also paints similar pictures. We ought to look broadly. 

Granted, digitisation is creating challenges, but where does that leave other perennial problems from which journalists and journalism need saving above? How will that saving look like?

Ms Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.                       [email protected]