Uganda at 50 & The Future of Tabloidisation of Ugandan Media

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Background:

At 50 years of independence, Uganda boasts of the youngest population in the world.

In 2010, both the ‘CIA World Factbook’ and www.world.bymap.org, a prestigious website which regularly presents world statistics in several categories such as comparative demographics between countries, ranked the number one country out 218 countries surveyed with 50% of its population under the age of 15. Admittedly, two years later, current estimates show this figure is in upwards of 65%. In other words, more than half of the Ugandan population could be either too young or too youthful.

What are the characteristics of these young people? What do they consume? What do they read? Easy! They trendy, fashionistas, love gadgets, fast cars, easy-to-read books and newspapers, fast foods, entertainment etc. They are also fervently agile, flexible, ambitious and spontaneous. They can easily bring down virtually anything at the slightest provocation. They are curious and extremely energetic.

They also love the internet and social media, meaning they are extremely interactive. This is why the number of internet users has risen from a mere 40,000 Ugandans in the year 2000 to 3.2 million in 2010. The social media statistics are abnormally normally. When the popular social networking site facebook set foot here in 2009, nearly 600,000 Ugandans have been hooked onto it, discussing a wide range of stuff, from politics, to music and personal issues. It is a parliament of sorts. If this trend continues, it means that every year, nearly half a million Ugandans will be hooking themselves onto social media. Perhaps this is why latest statistics rank Uganda 64th in the world in the number users who access the internet inside the country. This is the demographic that has come to be associated with a type of journalism known as ‘Tabloidisation.’ This is the type of readership that the Ugandan media started confronting slightly over 10 years ago. Thus, when the Uganda Media Centre asked me to write something on the history of this ‘Tabloidisation in Uganda and how it has impacted the media environment in Uganda, its challenges and its future,’ I felt that it couldn’t be understood better without looking at nature and configuration of those who consume it.

Tabloidisation Defined:

A sizable number of uninformed Ugandans tend to confuse ‘Tabloidisation’ with ‘Pornography.’ Quite often I have met some people who for example argue that The Red Pepper newspaper, which trades in tabloid journalism, is not a newspaper because it doesn’t look like New Vision and Daily Monitor. Nobody doubts that it doesn’t publish news. Interestingly also, very few have attempted to even understand that journalism has so many faces and tabloidization is one of them.

‘Tabloidisation’ comes from the word ‘Tabloid.’ A Tabloid is a newspaper with small pages, big headlines, a lot of pictures and light articles on popular subjects. A good example of a Tabloid newspaper is The Red Pepper, the most popular and youthful leading daily in Uganda. Tabloidsation is therefore a process by which journalists employ the tabloid attributes mentioned above in their news trade. There’s nothing ‘unjournalistic’ about small pages, big headlines, lots of pictures and light articles on popular subjects. Instead, there’s something ‘unjournalistic’ about the attitudinal analysis of what constitutes journalism and that’s why a huge section of clueless Ugandans and academia will look at stunning pictures run by tabloids and confuse it with Porn.

History:

It is difficult to box Tabloidisation’ to an exact period in the Ugandan mediascape. The liberalization of the media by the National Resistance Movement government could have some clues. It also appears that the beginning of tabloidization in Uganda has something to do with ‘the NRM peace dividend’ of the period 1986-1994. It could further have something to do with the post 1986 generational shift. The coming NRM on the Ugandan political space ushered in a new set of citizens; citizens who had never seen wars, never been refugees and just wanted to have fun. It set in a citizen who spent time in the disco, the beach, football tournaments and other entertainment places having fun and retiring home with no harm. The proliferation of the Frequency Modulation (FM) radio stations changed the way news was delivered. Suddenly, programming changed to fit this type of citizen. The first FM station, Sanyu FM (1991) and later Capital FM, started off with light programming that seemed to target the world of young people. Stuff like fashion trends, sex, modern music were a relief to the old relic programming at Radio Uganda. Ironically, this is the period when Uganda reduced its HIV infection rates from 30% to 6%. (These rates would shoot up again later when Uganda abandoned the open policy in the late 2000s).

But still, this was not tabloididasion. These radios were simply responding to a different audience never seen before in Uganda, an audience of young, enthusiastic urbanite trendy kids who were born and bred by the new system of politics that ventured into provision of freedoms in order to consolidate its political hold onto the country.

Through out the 90s, New Vision and The Monitor (now Daily Monitor) followed the FM stations and occasionally published some light content ostensibly to attract that confortable, relaxing and urban trending youth. New Vision started a gossip column about musicians and other social celebrities. The Monitor did the same but they never wished to be referred to as tabloid. They were mainstream. And mainstream journalism meant that there was no other life worth writing about outside parliament, state house, public ceremonies and the like.

At the start of the year 2000, another life was growing exponentially outside the officially public life that warranted the attention of journalists. The problem was that this life was the kind that generated light content which, to many mainstream media advocates, wasn’t journalism. This life was in the discotheques, the beaches, the music concerts, the football stadia, the bars and the movie cinemas. This lighter side of Uganda was not being captured anywhere. Nobody, from the political establishment to the menial policy makers thought this was something to focus or even talk about.

In 2005, when an unknown young Ugandan, Gaetano Kaggwa, became famous for his exploits on reality TV ‘Big Brother Africa’ and received a near heroes welcome at Entebbe Airport, the then Minister of Ethics and Integrity Hon. Tim Lwanga referred to Ugandans who had travelled with tree branches to welcome him home as ‘mad and idle.’ This was clearly a case of lack of touch with the new reality. His boss, President Museveni, possibly shocked by his popularity following a publication showing a woman crying Gae, remarked during a public function; ‘who’s this Gaetano?’ Museveni would later send his chopper to pick the entire 14 BBA housemates to his base in Soroti from where he appointed Gae on both his anti-HIV mobilisation and political campaigns.

Meanwhile, this Gaetano-like population was exploding, busy accessing the internet and social media platforms like never before. As the main discussion trended in the mainstream media platforms, another discussion about trends, gadgets, cars, lifestyles, music, movies, trended elsewhere. This, to me, can be said to have been the real start of tabloidization in Uganda. This is when musicians, actors, comedians, pictures of liberated beautiful women and dazzling hunks made it to the front page news and ‘stole the show’ as Ugandans would like to say. The Red Pepper that had been at the centre of this new wave grew by leaps and bounds, sending the mainstream media back to the drawing board. The Red Pepper grew because there had been another readership outside the thick walls shelving civil servants and the politicians. It grew because it wrote about a new generational trend in Uganda. Suddenly, artists like Chameleon shared the same front page recognition as the local minister or even the president.  By 2011, not only had the radio stations and mainstream newspapers realized the need to light up their content, starting Music-only programming and sister tabloid newspapers to tap into this demographic, the ruling National Resistance Movement, faced with a huge challenge of appealing to this new electorate, had to have its presidential candidate, Yoweri Museveni, as a hip-hop rapper. His hit single; ‘You Want Another Rap,’ swayed youths to his side and won him nearly a landslide back to State House.

The Future:

The Ugandan media has suddenly realized the need to appeal to the 65% of the Ugandan population with tabloid content. The state-owned New Vision has not only re-modeled towards tabloidization, they have started a weekly tabloid newspaper, a tabloid television and several light content magazines in total disregard of their mainstream agenda. By the time Uganda was celebrating 50 years of independence, it seemed like an 11-year old Red Pepper was giving their 26-year tightly guarded turf a run for its money.

President Yoweri Museveni has rightly predicted that Uganda will be a modern first world country in 50 years time. This modern country will have its population fully connected to the internet, active on social media, fun loving and light content consuming. It is no doubt that tabloidization has a future. Only those oblivious of the current trend, will doubt this. There is further no doubt that companies and other potential advertisers will very soon target the only population demographic that is consuming tabloid content.

Perhaps, the only challenge tabloidization faces will be in its failure to tabloidise serious content. Otherwise, the future is bright.

The other bitter truth is that in not so distant future, Uganda will only have a president whose electoral fortunes will be majorly dictated by tabloid consumers.

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