The news that’s breaking free from the newsroom

7 years ago, dynamic music duo Radio (RIP) and Weasel tackled worker exploitation in a song. Ba Customer, a bold statement, compares exploiters to the teeth of a crocodile – agannyo ga goonya. Lyrics sung by the late Moses Sekibogo (Radio) go ahead to directly call out a certain media boss for allegedly not paying for the duo’s work. Mentioning his name, Radio appeals to the him to pay what he owes, if only for the stars needed to feed their families and pay rent.

Last weekend, media personality and influencer, Sheila Gashumba broke the internet in a series of equally bold tweets taking on media corporations for exploiting and underpaying television presenters. With the portal opened; media practitioners, creative artists, doctors and lawyers shared their stories too. But this conversation was always a volcano waiting for a force strong enough, to erupt. Ugandans have a saying: “I am waiting for some ka money(so I can pay you),” a popular response by a debtor to their creditor. We often laugh about it – as humor has served us well overtime as a coping mechanism. Yet behind the laughter, is our collective acknowledgement of a debt ring and where it originates – labor exploitation.

Creative artists are particularly familiar with these woes and have many times taken to social media streets to demand for remuneration. In a country with a non-existent minimum wage law, employers and clients take advantage of these hungry, desperate youth who have against all odds forged a means of survival. That our culture is still well on its way to recognizing the arts as work doesn’t help matters. So while some are not paid at all, others wait months before a payment is effected. In the meantime, they borrow from under-payed journalists who also borrow from under-payed junior lawyers. The cycle is endless.

Journalists do not have it any better. Anyone who has been in even remote proximity to the industry has either experienced or heard of the exploitation. One clear indicator is the high turnover in newsrooms. The crisscross of journalists and TV/Radio presenters from one media house to another is perhaps the more noticeable example. Another one is that half the communications heads of corporate companies are former media practitioners. The transition is often silent. The exit gracious, the reason for it? The elephant in the room that’s best left not-poached.

So while many people argue that journalism is led by passion and not money, perhaps rightfully so, the truth is that passion can not buy milk. It won’t take one’s child to school, and neither will it pay rent. And sure: work hard. Stay humble. Appreciate the platform. But even while the platform can prove to be a substantial bargaining chip for the next gig; in the meantime, tabloids run stories of TV presenters who have been thrown out of their apartments for defaulting rent. Not so sustainable this passion and patience, is it? 

Why does it take a young womxn to bring the conversation to light? My biased, yet educated guess is that womxn are more likely to lead revolutions. More important to note here though is that any fight against any status quo is difficult and exhausting. It takes so much courage, yet many times barely yields desired results. Those who can help it often leave. For other many Ugandans who are burdened by the “black tax,” an implication of the vicious cycle of poverty, the courageous thing in this case is neither to leave nor speak up. It is in fact, to unclench one’s fist and flex the fingers – then get to typing that news story. The UGX 25,000 for it, or in Sheila’s case, UGX 50,000 per show might then keep their souls alive enough to live and fight another day.

For other formerly exploited workers who came out the other side, it is easier to spring up testimony to the fruits of un/underpaid labor: see, I worked hard and eventually got to this semi-middle class level. This testimony is unlike the permissively deceptive kind of millionaires at the Pakasa Forum telling the, I-began-with-just-UGX 300,000-so-you-too-can-be-like-me story to Mukono youth peasant farmers. This one, is perhaps a psychological adaptation to the reality of being exploited. Abuse victims too often find ways to make sense of it. “I provoked him.” “I trusted the wrong person.” “It wasn’t that bad.” But nothing warrants being stripped of basic decency – not provocation, certainly not a chance at professional growth.

I would like to believe journalists understand this better than anyone. While covering stories on the doctor’s salary strike and the teachers’ poor pay; they are unlikely to ask why these professionals won’t just appreciate that they are at least being compensated in career growth. And yes, capitalism seeks the opposite of fairness, yet if a worker must live with the crippling anxiety of unpaid rent to build their CV while their employer bags millions, then we might want to halt investigations into government corruption and have an honest conversation in the workplace boardroom – at least before another artist takes the fight to a studio.