Slums, food, marketplaces. We have instantly recognized many of the sights in Uganda as very different from those we see on a day-to-day basis in the U.S. But our visit this morning to the headquarters of Monitor Publications Ltd. in Kampala included a lot of scenes similar to newsrooms back home. This may seem surprising because in contrast to the United States, the Ugandan media faces a lot of government intervention and interference. But as we made our way upstairs to the conference room where our meeting took place, the view looked very much like that of walking through the Des Moines Register newsroom.
People were talking on phones and taking notes as we moved past. Computer monitors around the room displayed Facebook newsfeeds and the websites of other news organizations, such as BBC and The New York Times. There were HPs, Dells and the graphic designers were all working on pages using Macs and Adobe InDesign software. However, we also learned more about the significant differences between the Ugandan media and the environment in which The Monitor operates, and that of the U.S.
The Monitor newspaper is an independent publication and the majority shareholder is the Africa-based Nation Media Group. In contrast to its main competitor and mostly government-run newspaper The New Vision, The Monitor is known for its reporters’ investigative journalism work and for publishing things as they really are, as opposed to how the government would like to present them. We heard from Monitor news editor Alex Atuhaire and weekend edition managing editor Fredrick Masiga about when they receive calls and letters from government officials demanding that certain photographs be removed from the website or that a particular article is not published. But they print it anyway.
“Independence is one of our core values,” Atuhaire told us, adding that he keeps the Monitor’s editorial policy book on his desk at all times.
During the current “Walk to Work” protests Ugandans are conducting to voice disapproval of raising food and gas prices, The Monitor has not been shy in publishing photographs of the riots and reporting on leader of the opposition Kizza Besigye’s arrests, Masiga told us. He said some Monitor reporters had been denied access by the men guarding Besigye’s house and had their equipment stolen. He and Atuhaire also mentioned the government has tried several times to persecute The Monitor in the Constitutional Court for some of the work it has published because the Ugandan Constitution assures freedom of speech and of the press. For this reason, Masiga said, the Court has always ruled in favor of the media.
“We always find a way of winning our cases because we do everything within the law,” Masiga said. “People should be able to express themselves across the board, whether online or whatever.”
The Monitor’s market is also small in comparison to American papers and its circulation is based mostly on street sales rather than subscriptions. Atuhaire estimated that 25,000 to 35,000 copies are distributed each day, making the paper the second most read in the nation behind The New Vision.
Atuhaire and Masiga demonstrated a real passion for truth seeking and investigative reporting as they talked with us and described what they saw as the responsibilities of The Monitor and its staff. This discussion tied in well with our course theme of sustainable development. A society must have stable government the people trust to thrive, and its assets must be used in reasonable and effective ways. Even with a government that gives them only “relative freedom,” the paper sees it as its duty to ensure government resources are allocated and used according to agreed proceedings, Masiga and Atuhaire said. Reporters and editors work to make certain that’s what is happening by exposing any corruption and giving people in the knowledge they need to fight it.
A sustainable society includes a mechanism that serves as a check on the government and elected officials and allows people access to reliable information about their community and its people. The Monitor representatives we met with today certainly illustrated dedication to those goals.
But people also like to be entertained, right? After talking to Masiga and Atuhaire, we were shown another one of Monitor Publications’ mediums, KFM Radio. A guide took us through the recording studios and explained that the station played “a little bit of everything” in terms of music. The DJs also read news bulletins regularly, but she said the stories are not necessarily those found in the pages of the newspaper because the radio has a different editorial board. She also commented on the timeliness of the news shared on the radio, a medium that is extremely popular with Ugandans. While the newspaper staff might have hours to work out the details of a story, she said, the radio relays much more instantly relevant information.
On our way out, we also stopped to examine the printing press. Many of us took photos and videos as the huge machines roared and dozens of printed Monitor sections rushed past us on the conveyor belt.
After a busy morning, we headed to Ridar Hotel for an afternoon of fun. We spent the hours after lunch at the mid-sized resort on the outskirts of the city laying in the sun by the pool and using the hotel gym. It became clear how close we’re beginning to get to our new friends from Makerere University Business School when we realized how happy we were they were able to join us. The relationships we’re developing with them are one of the most valuable parts of the trip so far.
The pool area at Ridar Hotel was fairly congested for a while when a large group of local school children joined us. Dozens of them ran around the deck laughing, screaming and splashing. They definitely added some amusement to our day as we watched them have fun and receive swimming instructions from a couple of their teachers. After they left, Evelyn (who is a lifeguard back in the States) even taught a few of our MUBS friends a bit about getting around in the water. Hopefully, her impromptu swimming lessons and back float tutorials paid off.
We’ve also been receiving some instruction from them as they teach the Drake students Luganda, the local language. Even though they giggle at our horrendous pronunciation errors, they’ve been helping us learn basic phrases and fun words.
We made use of one of these tonight as we left the bus to go to bed back at the hostel: Sula bulunge! (Good night!)