Overworked and underpaid journalists see ethical gray areas

MBARARA, UGANDA — When Eli Akiza started working as a journalist, he was excited to put into practice what he had learned in journalism school. For a time, the job was as rewarding as he had imagined. The compensation wasn’t bad either. But four years later, he feels his career has gone through a lifetime of changes.

“When I compare the work I put in and the earnings per story, I feel like we could have been paid more,” he says.

Wearing a white T-shirt, Akiza, 29, sits at a desk in front of a laptop in a dimly lit newsroom in Mbarara, a town in western Uganda, as he ponders the few years he spent in the profession. He is a journalist with Vision Group, a multilingual conglomerate that owns newspapers, magazines, television studios, radio stations, and commercial printing and distribution companies. Fortunately, says Akiza, his salary has not decreased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but he worries about the impact the prolonged economic consequences of the pandemic could have on his journalistic integrity.

Many Ugandan newsrooms are struggling to recover from the economic consequences of the pandemic, raising fears that the prolonged financial difficulties could undermine the integrity of journalism by forcing journalists to accept money from powerful sources. Many media have closed offices across the country because they cannot afford to pay journalists. Companies like Vision Group have suspended publication of local-language newspapers that can no longer generate advertising revenue, leaving only English-language publications to operate, said Fredrick Mugira, senior news producer at the company.

Journalists who are lucky enough to still be employed say their jobs have become more difficult as the media have cut staff and cut travel and other expenses, leading many to accept cash from some sources they write about. Known metaphorically as “brown envelopes”, the distribution of money by sources, which was once frowned upon, has become widely acceptable as more journalists find themselves overworked and struggling to cover stories. costs associated with their reporting.

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Vision Group reporter Eli Akiza worries about the impact the prolonged economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic could have on his journalistic integrity.

A survey by the African Center for Media Excellence, a non-profit organization that promotes excellence in journalism, found that around three-quarters of Ugandan journalists earn no more than one million Ugandan shillings ( $260) per month, and less than 10% earn more than 2 million shillings ($520). The report, which was released in June 2021, attributes the low wages to falling newspaper advertising revenue due to lower sales during the pandemic. Nearly a quarter of journalists surveyed say it is justified to occasionally accept a brown envelope and 9.5% say it is always justified. The rate of journalists outside Kampala who said accepting money from sources was justified was much higher, at around 35%.

Mathias Rukundo, president of the Uganda Journalists Association, acknowledges that some journalists accept money from sources but says the organization does not condone this practice as it endangers the independence of the profession.

“We condemn any journalist who receives anything in compensation beyond the employer’s salary,” Rukundo said. “Anything a journalist receives without an exchange of goods or services amounts to a bribe.”

But Immaculate Owomugisha Bazare, head of advocacy and litigation at the Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS, a non-profit organization that promotes human rights in the context of health, disagrees that paying journalists amounts to bribery. She says her organization not only pays reporters who attend her events up to 100,000 shillings ($26) to offset their expenses, but also accepts unsolicited proposals from reporters she pays for coverage because it comes up often. cheaper than buying advertising. She says the journalists the group works with find their own angles and conduct their own investigations without influence from the organization.

“We just help them with transportation costs, because most of them walk to our events,” she says.

While John Baptist Imokola, assistant lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University, agrees that accepting brown envelopes undermines the integrity of journalism, he says rural journalists are not often have no choice. The fact that more of them say they see nothing wrong with accepting money from various sources reflects how much worse their wages and working conditions are than those in urban areas. He says some journalists in small towns are only paid 2,000 shillings (52 cents) per article, and sometimes months can go by without them being paid.

“They become more desperate and end up looking for ways to survive instead of serving the profession,” says Imokola. “It’s even more dangerous to be a journalist in the hinterland.”

Mugira, the Vision Group producer, who has been a journalist for 17 years, agrees that some journalists may be under pressure to accept money from sources because they usually don’t have a return to work after reporting. But he doesn’t entirely blame media houses for not paying their reporters enough.

“Media houses aren’t making enough money, especially after COVID-19,” he says. “What should they pay us with?

Mugira says media houses on average make monthly profits of around 10 million shillings ($2,620) and many do not break even but have to pay running costs like water and electricity. But he admits some media houses may be engaging in unfair employment practices and failing to pay their workers adequately.

“Sometimes profits trump principles, and some media houses turn a blind eye to ethical violations because they have to keep operating,” Mugira says. “The only way for them to take responsibility and provide their journalists with the tools to produce quality journalism is if they have to.”

But Mugira says he is more optimistic about the future of journalism in Uganda because most journalists are principled people who entered the field because they believe they are providing an essential public service. He says that over the years he has seen young journalists evolve to value the nobility of the profession, especially as more and more of their stories make headlines and benefit society.

Some journalists go so far as to accept gigs as emcees for corporate events to supplement their income and avoid having to accept money from sources.

“I’ve seen journalists go to events and press conferences and refuse to sign forms when the organizers offer them money,” Mugira says.

Sarah Mubiru, editor at TV West, explains that the issue is more complicated because not all journalists agree on brown envelopes. She doesn’t think accepting money from sources always equates to a bribe and thinks journalists are able to use their discretion to distinguish between a bribe and a mark of appreciation for covering an event.

“It is a bribe when a payment is made to a journalist to prevent coverage of a story or to write favorably about an event,” says Mubiru. “If, when a function is over, an organization gives each attendee a brown envelope, it is acceptable for a reporter to take the money.”

Mubiru says it is up to media companies to develop policies to protect the integrity of their journalism. His employer, for example, has a policy that reporters must report when they receive more than 100,000 shillings ($26) from a source and will fire any reporter caught demanding money for killing a story or for writing a favorable one.

“Those who have already asked for money have been suspended and others have had their contracts terminated,” she says.

Gerald Walulya, a senior lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University, says the fact that journalists disagree that it is unethical to take brown envelopes at their sources reflects how normalized corruption has become in Ugandan society.

“Journalists have lost sensitivity,” he says. “When other sectors of society are corrupt, journalists are likely to be too. When you teach ethics and they don’t see it practiced in society, they don’t take it seriously.

Walulya says that although some media houses have tried to limit what journalists can accept as gifts, even the smallest amount of money can serve as an indirect form of bribery and can compromise the journalist.

“If someone gives you 50,000 shillings [$13]there is a natural feeling that you have to return a favor,” says Walulya.

Walulya, who worked as a journalist in local and English media before entering academia, also rejects the idea that only young people who are new to journalism and don’t earn enough accept brown envelopes. He says he has seen journalists who earn a lot of money accept bribes.

“Newsrooms need to constantly remind journalists of these ethical concerns, but also try to compensate them fairly,” Walulya says.

Although Akiza feels that he is not well paid, considering the time and energy he devotes to his work, he says he is convinced that no amount of money from any source could compromise the integrity of his work. But he admits that, given the difficulty of doing his job, he does not rule out the idea of ​​accepting a brown envelope from a source, when it is also given to everyone who attends an event.

“As long as it’s in good faith, it can’t compromise my ethics,” he says. “We know we’re not meant to be used by people for their own interests, so ultimately we have to do the right thing.”

Overworked and underpaid journalists see ethical gray areas

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