Many newspapers in East Africa are thriving - some fat with ads, enjoying solid circulation and little competition - but there is broad concern that all that advertising is also promoting self-censorship and corrupting news coverage
While newspapers elsewhere in the world shrivel, thanks to shrinking ad revenue and online competition, they are still dominant in much of East Africa, where a growing middle class and prohibitively expensive online browsing have allowed the printed word to survive and even thrive.
A prominent example of this success is the Nation Media Group, the largest independent media house in East and Central Africa and publisher of Kenya's principal daily newspaper, the Daily Nation. The group increased its revenue by nearly 50 percent in five years to 12.347 billion Kenyan shillings (US$142.5 million) in 2012.
Newspapers account for the bulk of that revenue. Paralleling that trajectory, the advertising market in Kenya rose nearly fivefold in the past five years, while there were smaller gains in Uganda and Tanzania, according to Joe Otim, media research and monitoring director at Ipsos research company.
"In East Africa, the advertiser is king," said veteran Kenyan journalist John Gatchie, who works as a media consultant in the region.
Because they represent the greatest source of revenue, advertisers - especially governments and government-owned enterprises - wield huge influence, which often allows them to quietly control what is published and what is not, according to journalists and media analysts. Advertisers offer lucrative ads to sweeten any coverage or threaten to stop ads if a paper writes critically about them.
This type of back-door soft censorship, generally invisible to the public, is not a problem unique to East Africa. In West Africa, state-owned newspapers lead in most markets except Nigeria, since they receive the lion's share of government advertisement revenue, said Sulemana Braimah, deputy director of the press freedom group Media Foundation for West Africa.
In southern Africa, advertisements are sometimes used by politicians to discourage critical coverage, said Raymond Louw, former editor and publisher and veteran media freedom campaigner in South Africa.
And the issue surfaces in other regions of the world, perhaps most dramatically in Turkey in 2013 during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. Media owners there, beholden to the government, suppressed coverage of the demonstrations by their own reporters, some of whom they subsequently fired at the government's behest.
Such practices are also notable in Latin America, where government advertising has been widely used for decades as a cudgel to punish media critics or as a reward to bolster supporters.
In a survey of 1,000 Argentine journalists in 2011, for example, dependence on government advertising was ranked the third most serious challenge facing the Argentine media after low salaries and lack of professionalism.
Polling results showed that 58 percent of the subjects thought journalism in the country was "conditioned" and 72 percent said they thought the business departments at their outlets had influence in the newsroom.
In East Africa, advertisers are a mixed blessing, said Deodatus Balile, managing editor of the Tanzanian private weekly Jamhuri. "Advertisers are the biggest financial supporters of the press and yet they are also the biggest suppressors of freedom of the press," he said.
One novel news suppression technique adopted in Tanzania is a blanket advertising strategy that involves placing full-page ads that leave no room for anything else on the front and back pages, according to John Mireny, publications and research manager of the Media Council of Tanzania, an independent regulator.
The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi Party ("Party of the Revolution") did just that with all of Tanzania's newspapers in 2010, stifling coverage of the opposition party's inaugural campaign rally, Mireny said.
In Tanzania, ad revenue covers about 85 percent of a newspaper's running costs, according to Balile, which provides little margin for aggressive reporting that might alienate clients. Despite a relatively high literacy rate, circulation levels are low, in part because readers in Tanzania share newspapers to save money.
Newspapers in impoverished South Sudan, a country that gained independence in 2011 after decades of civil war, are struggling. "The market is narrow and distribution is poor," said Badru Mulumba, editor of the New Times. "With such poor sales, any advertiser is viewed with respect and welcomed with roses."
In 2012, the press in Uganda was awash with stories alleging graft in the prime minister's office involving misappropriated donor funds. "As editors we insisted on covering the story despite some objections," said Barbara Among, foreign editor of Uganda's leading independent Daily Monitor.
But the office of the prime minister, which oversees five ministries, also happens to be one of the biggest advertisers in Uganda. After the government placed numerous ads in the press, fewer graft stories were published, local journalists said.
"Now with the prime minister's office's big budget, there is less reporting on the scandal," said Don Wanyama, the Daily Monitor's managing editor. "The press could have done a lot more in terms of digging up the rot in that office, but fears of lost ad revenue silenced everyone."
Influencing the press using the financial clout of ad placements is not only a government affair. In September, an electric company with indirect links to the government in Tanzania informed the private daily Raia Mwema (Good Citizen) that a cell-phone company had been illegally connected to its power lines and owed billions of Tanzanian shillings.
"Imagine, only one newspaper published the story but kept it very vague without saying the name of the cell-phone company," Mbaraka Islam, the newspaper's news director, said.
"Very few can write about cell-phone companies such as Vodacom, Airtel, Tigo - they have financial muscle," Balile said. "If you write negatively about them, they go straight to the courts, acquire a court injunction, and deny the public access to information."
"We have even gotten to the point where editors write what I call 'advertorials' to appease companies--false editorials that invariably praise their corporate advertisers," Balile said.
There is similar editorial pressure from corporate advertisers in Uganda. "They seek more editorial visibility than government advertisers," said Robert Kabushenga, the chief executive officer of Uganda's leading state daily, New Vision. "Occasionally they demand spiking negative stories or suspend advertising to 'punish' for adverse publicity. The threat is that we are dependent on their money in an increasingly tight market."
Certain companies, banks, and cell phone companies, for example, have become difficult for the Kenyan press to cover because of the revenue they provide, said Charles Onyango-Obbo, executive editor at the Nation Media Group.
In July, Equity Bank's cash machines stopped working for several days but only online news publications and social media covered the story, according to local journalists.
"I think the bank was effective in limiting bad publicity. They post a lot of ads and its boss is known to many media CEOs. They play golf together," Daily Nation reporter Aggrey Mutambo said.
Sometimes the news is also tainted because of desired support from non-governmental organizations and the United Nations. This is especially noticeable in South Sudan, which relies heavily on the U.N. and NGOs in its rebuilding process.
"It has been my experience that managing editors who have attained adverts from U.N agencies and NGOs often assign reporters to positively cover their activities," South Sudanese freelance journalist Joseph Edward said.
This appears to have less to do with outside organizations urging coverage of their activities, and more to do with providing positive coverage in hopes of financial support through advertisements and grants, Edward said.
Self-censorship also arises when politicians and businessmen own or invest in media outlets, an issue that especially troubles the Kenyan and South Sudanese press.
Generally praised by the media community for his editorial hands-off approach to the press, the princely rich Aga Khan, spiritual head of the 15-million-strong Ismaili community, owns 47 percent of the shares in the Nation Media Group.
Three journalists at the Daily Nation, requesting anonymity to protect their jobs, say that, as a result, his investments in tourism and finance are almost never criticized in the East African press. This appears to be more a reflection of staff loyalty than any direct pressure, but is self-censorship nevertheless.
Meanwhile, Daniel Arap Moi, Kenya's former president, is believed to own the majority of shares in the Standard Media Group, according to a January report by the media development organization Internews and news reports. Moi's protégé, Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya's recently elected president, owns the Mediamax Company that prints The People newspaper, along with K24 television and Kameme FM, the same report said.
"If you follow the Standard Media Group, you will not see negative coverage of former President Moi. If you follow Mediamax, the same applies to the current leadership," said George Nyabuga, a journalism lecturer at the University of Nairobi. Standard Media Group chief editor John Bundotich and Mediamax head of news Anderson Waweru both denied this assertion.
According to an independent study conducted by South Sudanese journalist Godfrey Victor Bulla, eight of 11 newspapers in circulation in South Sudan are either directly or indirectly government-owned.
Commercial pressures on reporters and editors are not confined to the recruiting and retention of advertisers. As in many Western newsrooms, there is an increasing focus on cost-cutting and profits - even ad spending is on the rise in places such as Kenya.
According to the Newspaper Association of America, newspaper advertising revenue fell 6 percent in 2012 in the United States and is expected to decline further as newspapers increasingly rely on revenue from circulation.
Not so in Kenya. In the first quarter of 2012, 18 billion Kenyan shillings (roughly US$212 million) was spent on advertising, according to the research company Ipsos Synovate, while 12 billion Kenyan shillings (roughly US$141 million) was spent in the same period in 2011.
In a presentation at a media forum in Naivasha, Kenya, in October 2013, Harun Mwangi, chief executive of the statutory regulator Media Council of Kenya, said newsrooms are increasingly focused on making money rather than reporting news.
This is largely because most media owners are also big business players, Mwangi said: "They only focus on issues of public concern in the media as long as it bears profits."
In order to cut costs, investigative journalism has been curtailed and replaced by public relations exercises, with "news" fed to reporters, Mwangi said.
Increasingly, media companies are encouraging their staff to attain degrees in business rather than journalism, he added, based on his experience working with Kenyan editors and journalists at the council.
Similar pressures on news managers occur in Uganda, with editors assigned commercial targets, according to the Daily Monitor's Wanyama.
On his personal blog, Wanyama wrote that editors are now expected to reach sales targets and initiate "money-making" projects, adding, "So, beyond being bogged down with the pressure of delivering good stories, editors must think about special projects that will yield extra revenue for the paper."
In an interview with CPJ, he provided an example: "An editorial initiative such as a feature on health, for instance, will be cut for something that brings in money, so we are forced to cover areas where there is money even if there is not much public interest [in the topic]."
The tussle between moneymaking and news making has always been there, Uganda's Among said, but the tension is growing. "I fear we are abandoning our core business, the editorial business, and focusing on the profit margins. It's affecting the quality of journalism," she said.
While corporate influence in the newsroom is clearly a global phenomenon, editors and media analysts believe the problem is especially acute in East Africa.
According to Mireny, of Tanzania's Media Council, in strong and mature market economies, where literacy rates are high, advertisers have less of a stranglehold over a newspaper's independence.
In emerging economies, such as those in East Africa, with limited competition and often low literacy and circulation rates, editors are more vulnerable to outside pressures.
Small publishers in small economies are the most vulnerable. "Why this is particularly hard in Uganda," said James Tumusiime, the managing editor of the independent weekly Observer, "is because the economy is small, so advertisers are only a handful and you don't want to lose the major ones.
It is even harder for smaller newspapers, because while some companies find they cannot do without the biggest daily, the can easily withdraw advertising from smaller ones."
Newspapers can never be fully independent in Rwanda, said Christopher Kayumba, a lecturer and media expert at the National University of Rwanda, because the newspapers rely on just a handful of advertisers, the government being one of the most influential.
Who are these advertisers in East Africa who hold such editorial influence over the press?
Across the region, the government still wields the most influence, despite increasing numbers of private companies buying ad space. Even then, Kenyan companies that advertise heavily are often financially linked to the government, said media consultant Gatchie.
The Kenyan government is the largest shareholder, for instance, at Kenya Commercial Bank, and the Kenyan subsidiaries of Standard Chartered and Barclays Bank. It is also one of the largest shareholders of Safaricom, the country's leading telecommunications company.
Then there is direct advertising by the government. According to the chairman of the Kenyan Commission for Administrative Justice, Otiende Amollo, the government spent roughly 26 million Kenyan Shillings (US$297,500) in just two weeks on congratulatory messages in newspapers to politicians in presidential and legislative elections held in March 2013.
In Rwanda, approximately 85 to 90 percent of advertisements come from the public sector, says Robert Mugabe, editor of the online news site Great Lakes Voice. "If you need to attract adverts, it's simple. Don't annoy government," he said.
Government money constitutes roughly 60 percent of the advertising revenue of newspapers in Tanzania, Balile said. This crucial revenue is often provided to publications that support the government, Mireny said, disadvantaging independent publications.
The survival instincts of the dominant political elite in East Africa, where opposition parties maintain marginal influence, ensure government advertisers apply pressure on the press.
In Kenya, as elsewhere, the ruling party maintains near monopolistic control over ads in the media, said William Oloo Janak, chairman of the Kenya Correspondent's Association.
Government advertising is so pervasive that some publications are launched purely to milk the flow of money. While Tanzania has roughly 16 active dailies, Balile said, there are 767 registered newspapers.
"During local government elections, 450 publications suddenly appear on the newsstands. During a presidential election, you'll see all 767 papers vying for state adverts," he said.
Similarly, in Kenya, temporary and wholly government-supported publications have a short lifespan but make a lot of money while being printed, said Daily Nation online editor Charles Omondi in Nairobi.
Under the authoritarian leadership of Moi, he said, all state advertising was channelled through the Moi government's daily mouthpiece, the Kenya Times, and state officials were expected to purchase a copy. But "with Moi out of power, Kenya Times became 'Kenya Sometimes,' with irregular printing, before folding," he said.
Some East African governments often point to large numbers of publications as evidence that the media in their countries are free. In a public address in January 2013, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete boasted that the country had registered 763 newspapers and publications, the largest number in Africa, according to news reports. But a plethora of newspapers does not equal press freedom, especially when the majority function as a government mouthpiece.
When the majority of media houses agreed to blanket advertising from the ruling party in Tanzania during the 2010 general elections, the Swahili daily, Mwananchi, or Citizen, did not, said Mireny, of Tanzania's Media Council. "The post-election sales proved that audiences are not fools," he said.
"Time and again, papers that failed the impartiality test during campaigns and thereafter have seen their sales drifting downwards." Pro-government papers such as Uhuru and Habari Leo, for example, only manage to survive through government advertising and never through sales, Raia Mwema News Director Islam said.
The former highly critical weekly, MwanaHalisi, was starved of government ad revenue due to its critical stance, Managing Editor Saed Kubenea said. But the paper's brave and unique voice attracted a large readership, its circulation at one point reaching 100,000, the highest in Tanzania, local journalists said.
It may well be the sole example in the region of a newspaper's survival due largely to its circulation. "I think we were one of the few in East Africa who managed to thrive through sales alone," Kubenea said. Its critical success irked the government so much that the newspaper was accused of sedition and banned indefinitely in July 2012.
Eventually, online news outlets and social media may provide an alternative to newspapers. In Kenya, in particular, the popularity of social media as an outlet for breaking and critical news was evident during the September 2013 terrorist siege of Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
"Recent events in Kenya have me increasingly believe that online platforms as leveraged by ordinary citizens are growing more critical of state affairs than the mainstream press," said Nanjira Sambuli, a mathematician and new media strategist.
Still, Internet growth is slow and it is not clear how online news outlets will earn revenue. The International Telecommunications Union indicates that Internet usage in East Africa - with the exception of South Sudan, for which statistics are not yet available - increased in total by 10 percent over the past five years.
Newspapers, then, will continue to dominate the region for some time. The hope lies in media owners across East Africa accepting that the longevity of their newspapers does not depend as much on profits from advertising as it does on professional editorial policies that will secure the loyalty of readers.
-Tom Rhodes is Committee to Protect Journalists' East Africa representative, based in Nairobi. Rhodes is a founder of South Sudan's first independent newspaper. This article was first published on the CJP website.
THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM