On May 20th,  a friend alerted me that demons had attacked the Daily Monitor . I wondered what was amiss. I made some calls and the truth was unclothed before me–the police had taken over the office premises and were turning everything upside down to find documents related to an article the paper published recently.

In the story, Gen. David Sejusa had written to the Director General of Internal Security Organization, asking for an inquiry into alleged assassination plot of those opposed to a purported “Muhoozi Project”.

That letter by the General is what the police, on May 20, came to search for at Monitor and continued doing so throughout the week. As they did this, pen and paper were crashed under the feet of gun-wielding officers.

Going through the week has been heart breaking – passing by the office every day as I went to sit for my exams felt like standing by the lake and watching a dear one drown because you can’t swim to rescue them or call for help. But every night I went to bed, my hope stayed awake in the belief that the Daily Monitor, Kfm, Ddembe FM and Red Pepper, would resume operation the next day.

I was wrong. The papers and radios remained closed by May 27th and it remained unclear when operations would resume. Online publication was and still is the best we could manage.

So what does all this mean?

It is not news that the print media world-over is on a backbreaking journey. The Internet — with its sweeping information flow — continues to snatch away a readership previously exclusively enjoyed by print media.

The complete relocation of some newspapers online or the publishing of both print and online papers, has only solved part of the problem. Most online newspapers [e.g. those in Uganda], are accessed for free as long as one has access to the Internet. And because corporations are yet to fully embrace online advertising, online publishing has not fully remedied the financial hard knocks resulting from declining copy sales.

Amidst this fight for survival and relevance, advertisers, government and some individuals are on top of their game. The advertisers know that the newspaper is panting as it wades through muddy economic waters. They are also aware that cash from advertising is the key source of financial sanity for newspaper owners. As such, the advertisers are holding newspapers hostage, captaining the newspaper ship in a direction that suits their comforts.

As usual — the government continues to unwrap its claws — scratching the watchdog when it feels rattled by critical news coverage.

What is upsetting though is how industry players seem to disregard the power the media wields. As such, advertisers threaten to withdraw adverts if an article exposing inhumane working conditions in their firms is published and in some cases instigate the dismissal of reporters.

The government too knows that a negative story about it will not only dent its credibility internally, but taint its image internationally –so it flaunts sanctions, makes arrests, threatens or entices key industry players threatening to corrode its culture of secrecy.

It is true that advertisers buy space in a paper with mass appeal, readership and influence – no advertiser can throw their millions in a backstreet paper whose sales, let alone name is not trusted. It is therefore perturbing that the print media allows itself to be held at cash point by advertisers.

Newspaper readers are not stupid and neither are they ignorant to recognize an article without news value, depth and context or valuable information. If the media allows advertisers, the government, owners or individuals to determine what ingredient goes into or out of a story, won’t it lose readers who have remained loyal all through this turbulence?

It is true that no government admires a critical press but governments also know that they need the media –not just to publicize its programs but also as a public manifestation of its democratic badge. So why is the media – the watchdog — capitulating to those it must what over? Easy to ask the question, right?

But maybe the media is not as powerful after all. Take a look at this – the Daily Monitor and its sister radio stations – Kfm and Ddembe FM as well as the Red Pepper are shut down —condemnations on social media, the Western media, activists and the general public flow in –but a few days later everyone retreats to their havens—probably cursing silently…Life must go on right?

The journalists who dare teargas, pepper spray, batons and bullets to cover demonstrations by politicians or activists – could not even take a protest walk or camp at the premises and instead joined the lot of meek and apathetic public who seem unbothered about the importance of the mass media.

It is obvious the media landscape has changed and continues to do so – but the [print] media needs to ascertain how it will remodel itself to outwit the destructive internal and external influences and remain relevant. One way around this is to make deliberate efforts to get it right all the time, because as much as the media can make a better society and people, it too can break society and individuals through negligent reporting.

The media also needs to establish a healthy co-existence with the advertiser, government and all its associates –clearly demarcating its space and ensuring it does not become a permanent loser in this game.  That is easy to write, right?

What is true though, is that if the media hands over its watchdog role to untrusted hands, it will become a serial killer –of real stories – of public trust – and of the tenets upon which it was built.


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