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Gibson, Mwenda and our journalism

By Peter Nyanzi

The Daily Monitor boss’ expertise should drive the agenda at macro not micro level

On reading The Daily Monitor’s lead story: “Opposition rigged Luwero elections – Museveni” on May 28, I immediately got a worry that someone at the newspaper was going to face disciplinary action from the new “hyper-strict” Executive Editor, Malcolm Gibson. Just a few weeks earlier, Gibson had raised eyebrows when he took the unprecedented step of penning a series of articles in the newspaper warning his journalists against basing on “unsubstantiated rumour and gossip as fact,” a description that perfectly fits the Luwero “rigging” story.

The Monitor story, quoting the President, said: “In the recent case of Luwero, a rumour was passed around by somebody telling voters not to walk to the polling stations. That the NRM would send money or vehicles for trans           port… Hence, many voters stayed at home and the corrupt election officials along with the criminal opposition used the absentee names for ticking in favour of the anti-NRM candidate”. Surely, how could the reporter and the editor who handled the story escape disciplinary action for allowing “street rumours and idle gossip” in the newspaper?

I’ve deliberately used the above illustration – albeit in a jocular manner – to illustrate Gibson’s dilemma, which Andrew Mwenda alluded to in his column (See: ‘Recapturing professional journalism,’ The Independent, May 30-June 5, 2014).  “Journalists can only reflect the values of their societies. If a society depends on rumour and gossip to make conclusions and judgments about vital issues, journalists and journalism will reflect such tendencies,” Mwenda wrote.

“Ugandan journalists do not come from Norway or Sweden. They come from Uganda and therefore are mirrors of its idiosyncrasies, attitudes, prejudices etc. – to expect otherwise is to be naïve.”

Indeed, while appreciating the context of Gibson’s situation, the strong believers in liberal media would see Gibson’s controversial approach at The Daily Monitor as naïve and to some extent a draconian attempt to sever the newspaper from its historical roots  as a paper that ‘speaks to power’ on behalf of citizens.

Over the last two decades or so, The Daily Monitor has been a champion for good governance, constitutionalism, and rights of the poor plus the rule of law. It has, obviously, done this with a prickly bias and has, in the process, become a reference point for the government’s political rivals.

I would suspect that this is the “perception” (Gibson mentioned this word almost ten times in his articles) that he is talking about. He also made more than half a dozen references to “credibility.” With all due respect, not many level-minded Ugandans, leave alone seasoned media practitioners, would share Gibson’s view that “The Daily Monitor has not kept or yet established a level of credibility” that would allow its journalists to shape public opinion about issues of national importance.  He is definitely jumping the gun, which explains the apparent flat fall he is now in.

Or you have to ask who Gibson is quoting for his assertion.  It’s hard to resist the temptation to suspect that he appears to be making a veiled attempt at appeasing political sentiments – at a time when our fledgling democracy, the State, and citizens need critical journalism more than ever before.

Definitely not many people would dispute Mwenda and Gibson’s criticism of “ignorance and shallowness” among some Uganda journalists on key public policy issues. But will dwelling on criticising them and denigrating them do anything to change the situation? Investing in training programmes and mentoring them at a personal level would be a more proactive and sustainable approach. This activity should not be left to organisations such as ACME to do alone.

As the most qualified and most experienced professional in media management in Uganda today, Gibson, in my view, should be engaging at the apex level; setting the high level policy agenda that should see The Daily Monitor become a model for breaking-news reporting, photojournalism, investigative journalism, feature writing ,and public policy reporting and analysis. That, I think, is the surest way to make the media house “the most respected media operation in Africa,” which he envisions.

I find it a little frustrating that the discussion is revolving around basic issues, for lack of a better term, and more so at a time when the general elections are just around the corner. I feel the dialogue should have been around bigger issues such as investing in refresher training, capacity building, and improving the skills set, and not about banning journalists from expressing views on social media.

Yet, inadequate capacity is just one of the many issues that bedevil not just Daily Monitor, but most of Uganda’s newsrooms in general. Poor remuneration and a diminishing budget for editorial activities are serious concerns. There is little, if any, protection for newsrooms from distractions brought about by unnecessary political, business, and commercial interference. Morale and self-esteem are at an all-time low. Many journalists, including some at Daily Monitor, bear both physical and psychological scars and live in fear of the shadow of constant surveillance. The satisfaction a journalist should get from knowing that they are making a difference in their society is ebbing. Indeed, one needs a skin as thick as a rhino’s to remain in journalism in Uganda. What else explains the mass exodus of excellent journalists from mainstream practice in recent years? How do we change that?

Mwenda commended Gibson for starting “a very important conversation about journalism at [Daily Monitor], which may be important for our industry generally.” Very good, but I suppose the more important “conversation” that the media in Uganda needs is at macro level. The mainstream media need innovations that can help to deal with the challenges presented by new media technologies and a heavily commercialised market. At an institutional level, media management capacity is very low because editorial teams are relatively young and largely inexperienced. Something needs to be done to reverse the state of entropy.

At the universities, the number of journalism students who are interested in pursuing a career in journalism has kept declining over the years. The few who join journalism run away at the earliest opportunity. One can only hope that Gibson, who I strongly think is a splendid asset to Uganda, will rebuff the constant array of distractions from the political elite and fretting about ‘small issues,’ to engage us in a constructive conversation around these monumental issues.

The author is a journalist.

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