Many studies on the state of media freedom in Uganda, continue to point to the rough environment in which the media and journalists operate.
Media experts link this to the dwindling quality of journalism in the country.
But on the outlook of the common man’s eye, the situation might seem normal, which is not the case.
A recent report on the state media freedom released early this year by the Human Rights Journalists Network-Uganda (HRJN-U), shows the continued brutal attacks on journalists by the state (police) and public during their line of duty.
The report also points to the meagre wages paid to journalists by the media houses, which has compromised their work.
This according to report has affected the quality of reporting and quality of stories produced by journalists in different media houses.
Reviving the glory of the media
Mathias Rukundo, a senior journalist with Vision Group, the biggest media company in Uganda, says before dealing with the state, there is need to have consistent refresher courses to improve journalists skills from time to time.
“That is why cars are also taken for servicing every weekend; not because they are in very bad condition or because they have broken down. It is always to ensure the car is a good shape to avoid problems along the way. The same applies to refresher courses for journalists and other professions to ensure they learn new skills to help them in their line of duty because the industry keeps changing because of new technology,” he notes.
Rukundo is the new president of the Uganda Journalists Association (UJA), the body that brings together all journalists in the country.
Who is Rukundo?
Rukundo is a practicing journalist with the Vision Group which many know as the New Vision.
He has worked as a TV host, presenter, and court reporter with Bukedde TV, Urban TV, TV West and Radio West, all under the Vision Group partly state owned media house.
He has written several court stories for the New Vision newspaper and its sister vernacular papers Bukedde (Luganda) and Orumuri (Runyankore).
Immediately after university, Rukundo was assigned as a reporter attached to State House where he made connections.
He was later deployed at Parliament for four years and later moved to court where he was voted as the vice president Uganda Court Reporter’s Association (UCRA) also doubling as the Director Communication for the association.
One of his milestones during his tenure as the vice president for UCRA, he sued the then Chief Magistrate of Buganda road then, accusing her of blocking journalists from covering former police officers in a high profile case of Poteri Vs Mbabazi ,Kayihura which he successfully won.
With all this vast experience as a hands-on journalist and leader in the industry, this gives Rukundo an advantage in the presidential elections for UJA, scheduled for December 12, 2020.
Many of his workmates at Vision Group, Nation Media, Uganda Broad Cooperation (UBC), and other media houses, describe him as a humble, highly disciplined and listening personality, innovative and ambitious young man.
The soft spoken Rukundo, says his main focus is to unite the media industry to form a strong voice on top of ensuring professionalism.
He is convinced that if unity is achieved among all journalists and media owners, the glory of the media industry can be easily achieved.
“You see, before we start tackling external challenges like violence and harassment among the industry, we need to first tackle our ethics and internal challenges,” he adds.
He notes that it is evident that the quality of journalism has declined in the mainstream media including print and electronic media, which cannot be blamed on external forces.
He explains that, today many media organizations no longer organize refresher courses for their reporters which has strongly affected their skills in gathering news and getting sources.
He said refresher courses should be orgnised by the journalists’ body like UJA, NIJU, Uganda Media Union and other media organisations with the capacity for reskilling which has been abandoned.
“Many of the new journalists come from university and other media institutions without these skills and have nothing new to offer. Even the practicing ones also need to be strengthened and guided because of the changing environment in which we work,” he says.
He notes that refresher courses help to rebuild the memory of journalists, reduces mistakes and improves productivity among journalists, offers an effective warmup for students or employees who have taken a break or leave, keeps workers on the same page and up-to-date on the industry, helps to learn new information, and identifies knowledge gaps and training needs and creating motivation among others.
Improving welfare of journalists
Despite the harassment mated against journalists, many reporters continue to work under unfavorable conditions that include being paid meagre salaries, temporary employment for many and lack of job security and social welfare, which can not be blamed on the state.
Rukundo stresses that such challenges expose journalists to manipulation and unethical practices that greatly undermine their professional integrity and limit the exercise of their right to freedom of expression, thus affecting the quality of their reporting.
“These are some of the issues that we need to address internally without involving the state unless otherwise. Journalists also need to live a decent life like other workers or their bosses and other professionals. Today, many of our colleagues depend on handouts from conferences as a reason why the term masquerading is becoming common in our industry,” he notes.
Rukundo says many of those referred to us masqueraders are actually not; but they are journalists who are trying to survive. He says this can be addressed through an engagement with media owners.
Media rights under pressure
He noted that an immediate consequence of greater authoritarian rule is the obstruction of freedom of expression and the freedom to access information.
“Media regulations become tougher and journalists who are not in line with mainstream elites become more and more endangered and face possible censorship and intimidation – and even arbitrary arrest and torture. That is why we need one voice to deal with these draconian laws,” Rukundo adds.
He says in such scenarios, the protection of reporters, editors and media owners becomes a vital task for media support with joint close monitoring of the development of media freedom being more relevant.
“A lot of work has been done, and new creative initiatives have started, but so far it has not been reflected upon systematically. This is what I intend to address through various approaches to ensure rights are reserved,” he says.
Good media needs sound financing
He notes that the economic sustainability of media outlets continues to be a major challenge especially for smaller, local media outlets, such as local or community radio stations, which are often supported by media development funds.
“Many media development organizations are managed by journalists, most of whom aren’t fond of media economics, profit and business. But financial sustainability is a precondition for media outlets’ independence from the undue influence of others, be they governments, big corporations or senior politicians,” he clarifies.
He says since the poor and the rich consume media content, it is important to establish an economically viable media that provides quality journalism in combination with a strong advertising business, which does not influence content.
Audience research needs to go beyond REACH and SCOPE
He also noted that audience research has the potential to meet advertisers’ interests when it provides sound data.
“But this should not be limited to reach, scope and basic media users’ characteristics such as age, gender and education. Rather, audience research should be more advanced and also include media users’ assessments of specific media programs and of the quality of reporting. These are the things we need to discuss with media owners to ensure objectivity,” he adds.
Rukundo stresses that the broader understanding of audience research is not only a means for media managers to boost their advertising business; it can also be useful for editors and journalists to learn about their readers, listeners and viewers.
Stopping the decline in reporting quality
Though many studies claim a declining quality or reporting, Rukundo says it’s as a result of many factors which must be analyzed extensively for better solutions.
He notes that currently, there is no comprehensive study on the quality of journalism in developing countries although bits and pieces of researches confirm there is still much room for improvement. “Unfortunately, efforts in training and capacity building do not automatically lead to better quality. And given the current political situation and the disrespect for democratic inclusion often displayed by many governments, those who want to practice better journalism need to be supported,” he says.
Rukundo stresses that the sector can only address its challenges if they are united with one voice.
“This is what I want to achieve. If journalists work in silos, they can never address their challenges. My regime wants to ensure unity among journalists and media owners to secure our industry. I urge all journalists to ensure we work together to deal with our challengers. That’s why engineers, lawyers, accountants and doctors among other professionals are prospering,” he added