For the last quarter a century, Ugandan media has enjoyed unprecedented growth, mainly reflected in the mushrooming of private media houses compared to the period between 1960 and 1986, when the media was mostly under state control.
Although private media growth largely came with the National Resistance Movement in 1986, it exploded starting in 1993, with the liberalization of electronic media that ushered in an advent of private-owned radio and television stations. In fact, a BCC Media Action report, "Country Study Uganda - Support to Media Where Media freedoms and Rights are constrained', notes that following the liberalization, Uganda became an African trailblazer in terms of private ownership of media.
Today, more than 240 radio stations scattered around the country, the report notes, are privately owned and so are television stations and newspapers. But increasingly, these privately owned media houses are politically aligned and sometimes owned by businesspeople primarily to make money. Despite the apparent vibrancy, the media in Uganda faces a myriad of challenges.
For instance, the report highlights an increasing crisis of quality and commercial pressure as some of the key challenges facing Ugandan media today.
"While most interviewees appreciate the efforts journalists make to do a decent job under difficult conditions; there is widespread concern about falling standards of investigation, analysis and solid reporting," says the report, authored by Richard M Kavuma, now editor of The Observer.
Interviewees in the report - who include respected media scholars, academics, activists, donors and practitioners - also fear that big companies are using their huge advertising budgets to suffocate negative coverage, leading to a conclusion that the "economic threat" to media freedom is bigger than the political threat.
Released last year, the report adds that Ugandan media is increasingly succumbing to sensationalism, falling short on basic requirements like fairness, balance and a right to reply. In part, declining standards are blamed on "defection" from poorly-paying newsrooms, with journalists opting for better-paying careers like public relations.
Because of these and other challenges, the report makes a case for donors to commit more concrete support towards the development of independent media capable of fostering the demand for accountability from often predatory political classes. The question, then, is how best donors can support the development of a vibrant free media as a means to a more democratic community.
Joshua Kyalimpa, the President Uganda Journalists Association (UJA), argues that the media in Uganda is 'orphaned', facing many challenges with no one to run to for a solution. The government, Kyalimpa says, stopped at liberalization and does not have an intrinsic interest in fostering critical independent media. Instead, it is enacting draconian laws that have stifled media space.
Given the challenges, Kyalimpa explains that just like in other countries, the media in Uganda needs some support from development partners so as to be able to consolidate its gains and move forward. Though donors have supported other sectors like education and health, in a detailed and coherent manner, little support has been channelled to the media despite acknowledging its crucial democratic role.
For instance, a free media plays a watchdog role and, therefore, strengthens democratic governance, fight against corruption and offers a platform to the public to hold their leaders to account, among others. One reason for little donor support, Kyalimpa believes, is that the media in Uganda is very fragmented with no collective voice
"We are deeply fragmented. We have different groups clamouring for different interests" he told The Observer .
Indeed, the Kavuma report notes that unlike in most other sectors, there is no single entity that can effectively, aggregate, articulate and represent the interests of the media sector. According to Kyalimpa, donors should first support the media to get united and speak with one voice just like the Uganda Law Society for lawyers or the Medical Council for the medical profession, among other professions.
According to the BBC report, donors also acknowledge that a free and effective media is vital for "demanding accountability and stimulating demand for accountability." An effective Ugandan media would help taxpayers in donor countries to ensure that their money was being well-used.
Donor representatives interviewed in the report emphasized the importance of free, effective media for governance programming, with a free media vital for "demanding accountability and stimulating demand for accountability."
Yet, the BBC Media Action report argues that besides funding a lot of training workshops, donors have not really put their money where their mouths are. Presently, notable media development donors include Denmark, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Austria and the European Union. Since July 2011, these donors operate the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), a $93-million governance programme, that also supports media development.
Some radio stations in northern Uganda have received transmission and studio equipment, on top of long-term training for staff. In this case, the projects aim at building the technical capacity of media houses to reach bigger audiences with quality public affairs programmes. According to Kyadondo East MP Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, a former journalist, such 'serious' support is what independent and credible media houses need in order to be able to play their democratic role.
But Bernard Tabaire, a veteran journalist and Director of Programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), urges caution. The danger with donors funding individual media houses is that it would be artificial and could erode the media's independence.
Donor representatives quoted in the report appeared sympathetic to the idea, but they are also anxious that they could be accused of interfering with private sector competition between media houses. This suggests that substantial donor intervention would require some creative packaging on proposals for media development but also some courage among donors, who, after all, have funded whole media houses in countries like South Sudan.
Charles Odongtho, a Kampala-based journalist, believes that though there is need to support the media to overcome its challenges, donor support can't solve all the problems the media faces. To him, a lot of support needs to be channelled towards trainings and exchange programmes.
"Ugandan Journalists need to have exchange and mentorship programmes with established media houses like New York Times. This is the best way of building capacity in my view" he says.
But Kyalimpa has a different view of how media should be supported, "We need to have a Uganda Media Fund just like Tanzania and other countries. This can help in many ways; build journalists' capacity, and also offer reporting grants, mentorships and many more," he says.
The Tanzania Media Fund (TMF) is donor-funded and offers reporting grants and fellowships to individuals for media-related work, as well as to institutions, upon approval of applications. Tabaire believes that the media can be supported in two ways; one is donors to help the media create create a media fund, where media houses can run to and acquire quick loans at a low interest rate since the media services a greater public good.
For instance, if a radio station mast is struck by lightning, such a fund can easily lend that particular media house funds to replace the mast and get back on air. This is because resorting to commercial banks with commercial lending rates is very expensive for the media.
Secondly, Tabaire stresses development partners need to support the media mainly through training, especially through training institutions like universities and other media training civil society organizations like ACME to enhance journalists' capacity.
These two approaches must go together: the BBC Media Action report warns that, without vibrant media houses, even well-trained, passionate journalists could soon lose patience - and leave.
This Observer feature is published in partnership with Panos Eastern Africa, with funding from the European Union's Media for Democratic Governance and Accountability Project.