Friday, May 8, 2009



7th May, 2009

By Okodan Akwap

LOCAL journalists should not reject the sh150m donation that the Government has pledged to give to their cash-strapped organisation, Uganda Journalists Association (UJA).

There should not be any debate over whether or not this offer of sorely needed funding to UJA will compromise the independence of our media houses. The Government —through its three branches comprising the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary – and the press are partners, not enemies. That is why the press is traditionally referred to as the “fourth estate”.

The public roles of these four estates should be complementary, not antagonistic as the call for rejection of Government help to UJA seems to suggest. It is easy to illustrate this point. The judiciary is funded from the public coffer, yet it is common for Government to lose cases in the law courts.

And it is equally common for Parliament to block Government projects. So then, if those be-wigged judges and those fast-talking MPs are deemed independent despite Government funding, does it mean that journalists have weaker spines? I refuse to support that kind of insinuation.

Information dissemination is, in my view, similar to provision of public goods. According to Joseph Stiglitz, the renowned American economist who once headed the World Bank, a public good is one that does not have the property of rival consumption.

Rival consumption, he argues, means that if a good is used by one person, it cannot be used by another. Information provision then shows us how the notion of non-rival (or viable) consumption operates.

A person listening to CBS or reading The New Vision in Kampala cannot prevent anyone else in another part of the country from doing the same. One other property of a public good is that it is not logical, desirable or even possible to exclude any citizen from the benefits of such a good. You cannot build a highway from Kampala to Soroti and declare that only the Iteso can use that facility.

There are also publicly provided private goods such as education. It would be ridiculous for you to argue that Government should have nothing to do with your private school. Clearly, it is a duty for Government to play a critical role in ensuring that all citizens have access to adequate information. This is no different from ensuring that the country is well protected from external attack or that the air the citizens breathe is free from pollutants.

The need for the Government to work hand in hand with the press should be understood in the context of public-private partnerships that work quite well in both developed and developing economies. Indeed, this is what the notion of a mixed economy is all about.

Under this arrangement both the public and private sectors have a role to play in the economy. Even if the market encourages competition, it has certain limitations; in instances when it fails, Government should step in and regulate the playing field. We see that happening right now with the global financial crunch in the developed economies. Governments are stepping in to support the operations of private institutions like banks.

A government should do this not because it likes to take some jolly out of poking its nose where it is not wanted. It should do so as a responsibility to allocate limited resources, distribute resources (say, via taxation) and stabilise the economy through mechanisms such as economic growth, stabilisation of currency and price-level stability.

Local journalists face a real problem of poor professional training. UJA should take the money from Government and use it for training. It will not erode the independence of local journalists.

The writer is the head of mass communication at Kampala International University