A social media explosion, the dominance of radio and a government in fear of losing control. It can be hard to find your bearings in Uganda’s media landscape—the risks and potential for participation sit side by side.
The media and journalism cluster is classified in the orange section of the #speakup baromter. To find out more about the #speakup barometer color codes, follow this link.
A recent study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism nails it: “In Uganda, the media scene is vibrant, at least on the face of it, with dozens of newspapers and magazines, and hundreds of radio and television stations operating. However, underneath is an industry in peril as the difficult economic and political environment, coupled with the rise of social media, take their toll.” The overarching question that author James Tumusiime pointed out is: “How to save journalism amid the disruption?”
One major challenge: Journalists are restricted in their work and not able to report freely and independently. Reporters without Borders, in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, ranked Uganda in 112th place out of 180. “Acts of intimidation and violence against journalists are an almost daily occurrence in Uganda. Since Yoweri Museveni became president in 1986, many journalists who do not toe the government line have been suspended, stripped of their equipment, or badly beaten by ruling party members or security agents.“
In addition, the government still perceives the Internet as a threat. The country’s police service has set up a specialized social media monitoring unit, according to Reporters without Borders , and digital rights are restricted by a number of laws (Link auf den eigenen Digital Rights Text). The result is self-censorship and an avoidance of being too critical of the powerful. According to Gerald Businge Ateenyi, managing director at the Ugandan digital communications company Ultimate Multimedia Consult, the country’s media is free, and freedom of speech in anchored in law, but people know they can get in trouble for what they say. “Even traditional media would rather cover stories of entertainment and business conferences. Few are investigating what companies really do, what politicians really do. Journalists are playing safe and citizens are playing safe,” he said. “Many journalists don’t cover the real issues of public interest in the way that they should and we do attract some criticism for that. Some have turned to social media, posting some of the things they feel otherwise wouldn’t bring up.”
What are the most important issues?
But online journalism has its own problems, like anywhere else in the world: “There is a lot of ‘fast-food journalism’ on the Internet“, said Christine Mawadri, a digital consultant and radio journalist and trainer. Working conditions for journalists are bad and while reporters once got a monthly salary, now they are mostly paid per story these days. “They pick stories from almost anything and anywhere. They don’t take time for research because it would take up a lot of time. They wouldn’t get enough stories and wouldn’t get paid.”
Another issue of concern is fake news and the proliferation of false information online. “It spreads like fire via Facebook and more and more via messenger apps, but there is no confirmation. It is just a story that somebody wrote. I don’t know if it actually happened,” said Neema Iyer, founder of Pollicy, a group which works to innovate the delivery of government services across Africa., “Nobody cares about sources, why they would have written it. People don’t really think about that stuff.”
Access to relevant news and information remains problematic. Social media is primarily a platform for youth in urban areas, a recent study by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) found. In rural areas, where 77 percent of Uganda’s population of 37 million lives, poor infrastructure limits digital participation. And where the Internet is available, the data is often too expensive. “If I have to decide to either buy food or buy an Internet data package, I definitely go for the food”, said Abaas Mpindi, founder of the Media Challenge Initiative, a journalism training NGO. In addition, according to KAS, about 40 percent of the rural population are illiterate and thus have no access to social media platforms. Even among those who do read, most social media written content is in English; local languages are generally not represented.
For those with access, the medium is often used for entertainment or communications among friends and family. Even if younger, urban people do encounter online content on political topics, relatively few would find it relevant to their lives or interests. Nearly two-thirds of respondents to a DW Akademie study on Internet users in the eastern city of Mbale and close on 80 percent in the northern cities of Gulu and Lira said they had never used the Internet to get political information.
The result of this combination of low accessibility levels, high data prices, and content which seems irrelevant to many is that radio, with a countrywide penetration rate of over 90 percent, is the most widely used media platform. It does not depend on the power grid and is free of charge. In addition, radio can be accessed on many mobile phones and Uganda’s mobile phone penetration rate is around 40 percent.
What happens next?
And yet it is the Internet and the digitization of the media that can give rise to a diverse, free, and participative media landscape in Uganda. The country has the second-youngest population on the planet after Niger; about 78 percent of Ugandans are children or young adults under the age of30. It is precisely this cohort—younger people, students—who are enthusiastically embracing social media, along with professionals. Now social media use is expanding in the business community, especially as the mobile phone becomes an important Internet tool.
For young journalists and users engaged in online debates, the Internet allows them to fly under the government’s radar, a fact that makes officials nervous. “People’s awareness of digital and what they can do with it is growing too fast for the regulator,” according to digital consultant Mawadri. “Subsequently the government does not know how to contain some news.”
Blogs, citizen journalists, and independent media outlets provide an alternative source of information. Mainstream media houses will often refrain from publishing stories that compromise their relationships with influential figures or companies. For instance, the arrest of the FDC party secretary for environment, Zainabu Fatuma Naigaga, in October 2015 was widely shared on social media before it made it to mainstream outlets. This was later followed by a social media campaign dubbed #StopPoliceBrutalityUg.
How can media and journalism be improved?
So there is a good deal of potential. Digital technology is giving journalists the opportunity to report from remote areas, produce multimedia content in local languages, and bring the concerns of these communities into the public debate while helping ensure the quality of the online debate. “I think that the role of the journalist now is more authenticating information online,” said Mpindi of the Media Challenge Initiative. He added that while many journalists feel they are losing their privileged positions, he himself disagrees. He thinks people need journalists now more then ever because in addition to verifying information, they can objectively lead online public debates, follow up on stories that break online, and go deep into topics in diverse communities, bringing them to a larger public in ways that might not be possible for citizen journalists. “That’s why I think journalism is still intact,” he said.
But for some traditional media houses, adopting strategies on the efficient use of new media tools has been a challenge, even though by doing so, they would better communicate with their audience and have a better rate of engagement with them. “We need a continuous process of what I call digital literacy,” said Mpindi. “We need some sort of best-practices guidance. But this can hardly be developed in a useful manner if users themselves don’t have guidelines. They need a solid education when it comes to social media.”
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer