Like in most parts of the world, coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic has hit the newspaper industry below the belt in the landlocked East African country of Uganda.

To media houses in the country have either reduced salaries of journalists or sent them on forced leaves.

A sharp decline in advertising revenues, issues of circulation amid lockdown, and consumers saving money to spend on other necessities has brought untold miseries to print journalism.

“When people were asked to stay at home to stem the spread of the virus, they unilaterally decided against letting vendors deliver newspapers at their doorsteps,” said Aisha Nabukeera a news editor at an online newspaper the Community Agenda.

Although the government has increased spending on public health campaigns, other sectors are not releasing money for advertisements. The lockdown had already led to the collapse of newspaper circulation.

“Most readers are self-isolating, all schools, shops, restaurants, markets, and other businesses are closed, there are not many people to buy newspapers,” Nabukeera added

Two leading newspapers the New Vision and the Daily Monitor recently made their e-papers temporarily available online without charges.

The cascading effect of low revenues and minimum circulation have been borne by the staff, who are facing cut in their salaries and allowances.

Many journalists have been asked to go on leave and many others have lost jobs since the outbreak of a pandemic.

The English-language newspaper the New Vision has announced pay cuts of up to 60% for some employees. Its competitor the Daily Monitor has also announced salary reductions up to 35% for its staff.

“This is an extremely tough decision and we understand the impact this will have on you and your family. However, please be assured that we have considered several other alternatives, and the decision is taken is the most sustainable option in the current circumstances, “said an internal memo circulated by the management of the Daily Monitor.

Salary cuts and uncertain jobs

The newspaper management said it was an unavoidable but a temporary situation. The memo promises to review pay cuts after three months depending on the performance of the company and the pandemic.

“It is simply sad, working, and not knowing how your bills will be paid because you earn peanuts is so frustrating. I wonder whether I am any different from those who are unemployed,” said a reporter working with the New Vision. He said the company could sustain the crises without hurting the finances of its employees.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Muhammad Kibuuka an economist at the Kampala International University said a longer lockdown sans productivity would mean further cuts in salaries and inadvertently placing livelihoods on a hanger.

“Although ending the lockdown might mean allowing the virus to spread like a wildfire, but human beings cannot exist without being productive and mobile, there must be a balance between the two,” he said.

Umar Weswala, the managing editor of the Community Agenda admitted that print media couldn’t pay its staff.

“Even the best in the world, cannot pay to workers a healthy amount if they are not making enough money. I do not think people realize how much it costs to roll out a newspaper”, he said.

Ed Menya, a post-doctoral law student at Istanbul University said that cutting salaries and squeezing journalists financially is not good news.

“The press cannot hold those in power to accountable if its finances are weak. With such huge declines in newspaper circulation and shrinking advertising revenues, COVID-19 could potentially shift newspaper readers to online, thus bringing an end to the word in the print, “he said.

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