KAMPALA, UGANDA — Lynette Abeine, a TV presenter, walks into Vision Group studios bubbly and ready for gossip. Word on the street, she says, is that a popular Ugandan musician has parted ways with their manager.
It’s her first piece of gossip for “The Short Circuit,” a TV show by Vision Group. Its motto? “We live, eat, talk and sleep gossip.” It’s one of the many TV shows, known as a “gossip show” here, that have become popular in Uganda by delving into the private lives of celebrities and other public figures.
Gossip shows have multiplied in the last decade, says John Baptist Imokola, assistant lecturer at Makerere University’s department of journalism.
Their popularity is for a culmination of reasons. Some see the shows as a response to the country’s government, which has been accused of clamping down on press freedom, fueling a dislike for hard political content. Others point to competition from increased social media use in the country. All of it has put media houses under pressure to keep audiences entertained. Experts worry the trend is dwindling critical journalism and fueling apathy in the country.
Daniel Owor, senior content producer at Vision Group, says he has observed a general shift in the content Ugandans want to consume. “Ugandans have lost interest in things that matter. We have more ratings with these gossip shows than other programs. There is nothing intriguing about politics,” he says.
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“Uncut” by NBS Television is one such show. In an episode aired in August, presenters Kawalya Isaac and Zahara Toto recap the week’s entertainment news. A popular female musician had a confrontation with police outside the Ministry of Internal Affairs entrance over her attire, which the police found indecent. The show plays a video of the musician clad in denim shorts. The hosts invite an analyst, Isaac Katende, who says that the musician needs disciplinary action.
Lack of trust in mainstream media has driven many viewers to these shows, says Danson Kahyana, an associate professor at Makerere University’s literature department. “People get interested in gossip shows when they perceive that the news they get is heavily censored.”
While the Ugandan Constitution guarantees media freedom, the right to access information, and freedom of speech and expression, the government has come under fire for media suppression. Human rights groups are expressing alarm at the increasing number of journalists attacked and arrested. Others have had their equipment confiscated, particularly during contentious political debates and elections, according to a report by the Global Campus of Human Rights, a global network of universities that promotes human rights education.
The Uganda Law Society, an association for lawyers in Uganda, says the government is using the very constitution that protects the media to clamp down on it.
According to the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders — an international nonprofit that promotes the right to freedom of information — Uganda is rated 132 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, a drop compared to last year’s rating of 125.
Gossip shows in Uganda offer an alternative source of truth, Kahyana says. “It’s a way of saying ‘to hell with the official narrative. I can always get my truth from another source.’ After all, official sources often tell lies.” He sees gossip as a form of speech that empowers ordinary people. “It’s one way in which citizens participate in politics, and it’s like breaking the gate into [the] state house or the lives of celebrities. It helps ordinary citizens make more inquiries, discoveries and can act as alternative media,” he says.
But Ofwono Opondo, a government spokesperson, denies that the government censors the media, adding that it is obligated to tell Ugandans the truth and does so without compromise. If anybody thinks otherwise, there are avenues to challenge that, he says.
Imokola, the lecturer, worries that the proliferation of these shows diminishes critical journalism in the country. His colleague Kahyana agrees. “People disinvest from their country, which is dangerous,” Kahyana says. He worries that many Ugandans have become mere onlookers. “The disinvestment breeds indifference and cynicism, or is a result of indifference and cynicism.”
But producer Owor says media houses only invest in the kind of content audiences are interested in. “Audiences are interested in less serious content, which is gossip sensationalism,” he says.
The shows are “a break away from the stress in class and reading for exams and challenges of real life,” says Fiona Kiconco, a third-year student at Makerere University, who watches “Live Wire,” a gossip show by Nation Media Group. She sees it as a relief from more serious political shows that highlight corruption in the country, social injustices and human rights violations, all of which she finds depressing.
For Jacob Oloka, a salesman, the shows are a way to escape his own problems. “I can afford a laugh every evening when I watch these shows,” he says. “I temporarily forget my own challenges.”
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Increased social media use in the country is a contributing factor for the popularity of gossip shows, Owor says. It has forced the media to work a little harder to keep audiences entertained. “By the time you investigate the real facts [and] conduct research to produce hard news, they have already seen more funny things on social media,” he says.
Uganda was among the top seven African countries with the highest internet penetration in the third quarter of 2020, according to the Uganda Communications Commission.
While gossip shows are not illegal, media houses must comply with a “Code of Practice for Broadcasting” by the Uganda Communications Commission. It requires media houses to “exercise exceptional care and consideration in matters involving the private lives and private concerns of individuals,” although an intrusion could be justified by public interest. Media houses are also required to avoid broadcasting content that is offensive to the public or airing programs that portray violence or sexually explicit conduct when children might be watching, to mention but a few.
In fact, in October 2021, the commission began clamping down on some of these shows. It summoned 12 TV stations following complaints from the public, says Rebecca Mukite, the commission’s public and international relations manager.
“The commission directed the media houses to ensure that such content is broadcast after 10 p.m. However, this doesn’t negate the fact that such content is supposed to comply with all other laws and regulations,” Mukite says.
Alex Bongole, producer of “Live Wire” on Nation Media Group’s SparkTV, and a subject of complaints, sees the matter differently. He says producers and presenters of such shows aren’t taken seriously as journalists. “We are undervalued. Our bosses don’t understand us. Entertainment news is news as any other,” he says.
But Martin Ssempa, a pastor at Community Church in Makerere University, who was once invited as a guest to one of the shows, sees no value in them. He says he was invited to speak but was instead humiliated. “They told me I am a comedian, that I am failure being a pastor at a university that still has a lot of HIV and sex scandals,” he says.
Ssempa says he reported the show to the country’s communications authority, citing indecency and violation of broadcasting standards.
Olivia Nakigudde, a housewife, longs for the time when Ugandan TV shows were informative. “There were only educative programs on agriculture, business, politics,” she says. Some of those programs are still on air. But younger people are hooked on gossip shows, she adds.
“I pity the next generation. If we don’t do something about it as a country, we will have to pay the price,” Nakigudde says.
But Kahyana says sometimes gossip is useful. “Strangely, gossip shows may have more interesting insights on what is going on than what you get in the news.”
Apophia Agiresaasi is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.