Union solidarity for a stronger press

Had my disgruntled colleague not mentioned how much she earned, emphasising how low the figure was against the editorial legwork we had to do, I would not have known that I was earning a third less than her for doing the same job.


Had my disgruntled colleague not mentioned how much she earned, emphasising how low the figure was against the editorial legwork we had to do, I would not have known that I was earning a third less than her for doing the same job.

This inadvertent revelation about the pay discrepancy was as unsettling as it was awakening. For a split second, I considered renegotiating the terms of engagement with my employer, but what would I base my bargain on? It would not be rational to reference my colleague's pay as a basis for renegotiating my contract, given that salary scales were not open for evaluation or discussion beforehand. Instead, the salary conversation had been between the human resource manager and l. Whatever I had initially accepted would stick, my later discoveries on pay variance irrelevant.

While it was discouraging to feel cheated or underpaid, I had little leeway to change things. But it was not entirely my fault that l had accepted a lower salary than I could have received. Before accepting the job, I had, of course, researched salary expectations. However, I discovered that this was not very useful, given that discussions on pay in many media houses are strictly taboo-like subjects. Random figures might appear online, even on media careers websites, but these are far from reality.

In my case, pay variance is common in newsrooms, creating a discouraging working atmosphere for many journalists. The greenhorns, usually fresh graduates from journalism schools, join the media industry enthusiastically to don the hat of service to the larger public. Hence, when such realities hit, they feel exploited and disappointed, negatively impacting their attitude towards their work.
While pay discrepancy is a great challenge, it is only one of many problems faced by the media across many African countries, which demand urgent redress if progress is to be made. Challenges include sexual, verbal, and physical assault, harassment, gender-based violence, and discrimination. The media landscape is also hampered by political interference in journalists’ work by government operatives and politically-connected powerful acolytes.

As I discuss further in this essay, these challenges can be tackled if journalists unite and face them head-on as a collective.

Media Working Environment

For the most part, the conversation on how to make conducive the working environment in media houses is centred on several significant subjects:

  • Sexual harassment and physical or verbal assault in media houses. Many organisations are researching the prevalence of this. A recent report by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), Women in News and the City University of London revealed that forty per cent of women experience assault in newsrooms, showing the urgency with which this needs to be dealt with.
  • Journalists are exposed to significant risk while working in areas with high political tensions, as recently in northern Ethiopia.
  • Pay discrepancy, usually due to a lack of transparency and unequal bargaining power, is one of the significant setbacks that demotivates journalists and affects their work efficiency. We are so accustomed to the culture of silence that does not encourage financial openness. It is almost as though we have unconsciously accepted that it is normal not to discuss our pay. Greater attention must be called to such issues, and the status quo must be questioned. Research needs to be conducted to establish the nexus between monetary remuneration, job satisfaction, and efficiency.
  • Media personnel, especially those in private media companies, are often at a greater risk of job loss and pay cuts during economic shocks. A case in point is the Covid-19 pandemic, from which effects we reeled and are recovering.

While attention has been given to the sexual harassment journalists face, many other issues remain unaddressed.

Challenges Journalists Face

As journalists, we encounter numerous daily challenges, both within the newsrooms and in the field.

The Covid-19 Pandemic

During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, journalists were regarded as frontline workers. Many who gathered news from health facilities and public spaces were exposed to the risk of contracting Covid-19, and others were mentally affected by the traumatising environment. Journalists worked for long hours to keep the public informed.

The African Media Barometer (AMB) report for Namibia, 2022, found, “A number of journalists developed mental health issues during this time, and, in most cases, there was no sympathy or support from the newsrooms at all.”

Many reporters found it increasingly costly to work during the pandemic, with little help from the media companies for which they worked. And many lost their jobs. The AMB report on the media environment in Namibia further revealed that journalists were financially impacted. Due to the pandemic, many media houses reduced their budgets, leading to layoffs and pay cuts. While the drastic measures taken were justified in the long run, the impact on journalists was severe.

The report noted, “The health and safety restrictions imposed during the pandemic and the drastic cut in advertising revenue resulted in the closure of numerous media outlets. Retrenchment of staff translated into smaller and more harried newsrooms. Subsequently, journalists have come under strain – forced to work longer hours and take pay cuts with very little or no employer support. Their mental well-being and safety are disregarded, which has pushed journalists into setting up a union that is currently structuring itself into a more formal entity.”

Thus, there exists an absolute nexus between the financial well-being of journalists and their overall health in relation to their efficiency.

Politics and journalism

Another factor contributing to the unionisation of journalists can be seen at the intersection between politics and journalism. Essentially, being the people's watchdog, journalists are expected to speak truth to power and truth about power. In that sense, therefore, those wielding political power have subtly turned into enemies of journalists doing work for the larger public good. Gathering news and reporting about powerful politicians and government officials, especially in what can be considered authoritarian African states, have posed insurmountable challenges.

According to a recent report on the state of media in Angola, the government has been the leading agent in curtailing efforts by journalists to enjoy their constitutional freedoms of expression and association. This situation is not unique to Angola and is common in many African countries. The issue becomes more intense in the state-owned and controlled media institutions.

The report notes, “The Angolan media remains largely controlled by the ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party. The government owns the only radio and television stations that broadcast throughout the country, as well as the official news agency.” The report further states, “To add to the tensions, a media group, which operated television channels called ZAP, was suspended on allegations that the stations were improperly registered.”

The Angolan government has occasionally flouted its constitution that grants journalists the freedom to associate and intentionally created an environment where journalists are forbidden to unionise or stand up to influential operatives. Journalists in state-controlled media find it impossible to have their collective voice, creating a toxic environment. Additionally, the government suppresses alternative media and intimidates them, making it challenging to come together and advocate for their freedom.

Need for journalists’ unions

Unions are vehicles through which journalists leverage their collective power to bargain for better working terms and conditions, and to protect themselves from industry shocks.

In Kenya, the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) has existed for more than a decade. Its diverse membership is open to all digital, print, and broadcast journalists and private and government-owned media houses. It states that one of its core objectives is to seek “to improve working conditions of journalists“. It also protects and promotes media freedom, professionalism and ethical standards in the media industry.

The union has played a critical role in advocating for the rights of journalists while protecting them from the excesses of those in power, including media owners.

The 2016 African Media Barometer report on the state of media in Kenya noted that the KUJ had pushed for the signing of a collective bargaining agreement, which increased salaries for permanently employed journalists. The report noted, “Remuneration levels and benefits have improved significantly for permanently employed journalists thanks to a collective bargaining agreement signed between the Kenya Union of Journalists and media houses.”

The unionisation of media practitioners has proved to be an excellent mechanism for leveraging journalists' collective power and voice in improving their terms of work.

Challenges to unionisation and possible solutions

While it is clear how vital unions are in advocating for journalists' rights and better working terms, unions are also plagued with many challenges:

  • The low number of active members means that the unions do not have enough financial resources to confront powerful media organisations or to stand against power abuse by governments. Unions function effectively when there is solidarity in numbers and commonality of voices. Therefore, journalists could significantly improve their collaborative work environments and impact their lives by unionising.
  • Due to their perceived power, unions often experience resistance from some media owners and the government at the early stages. There are instances of infighting occasioned by the infiltration of union leadership by other operatives wary of the collective power of journalists. This results in weak unions that are unattractive to journalists and do not effectively play the role of media rights advocacy for their members.
  • Media owners sometimes fight against unionisation, as they are keen not to face the collective power of their employees. In Zambia, a 2021 AMB report noted, “Private media workers are not involved – they don't have contracts, and the owners are not willing to accept union membership. “If a person talks to a union, the next day they will be fired.” For that reason, journalists are forced to work in miserable conditions or quit.
  • Governments tend to frustrate unionisation efforts by denying members the requisite leeway to register and formalise their unions.
  • The detachedness of the union leaders from journalists’ reality. Those elected to the union often take up more administrative responsibilities and become detached from the active journalistic environment. To worsen that, they create a bureaucratic system requiring journalists to go through processes when reporting an issue or raising a matter. Hence union leaders, their power to defend journalists notwithstanding, are ineffective. It would be helpful if journalists working in newsrooms got active representation in their unions by those still active in the daily journalistic environments.


Unionisation in many media environments is a battle that is worth every effort. Solving the myriad challenges journalists face daily: sexual, verbal, and physical assault, poor pay, challenging working environments, insecurity, and exposure to risk in the line of duty, among others, will require coming together under vibrant unions. It is possible to improve the lives of journalists through unionisation.

About the Author

Muchira Gachenge is a writer and editor based in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a published poet and short story writer. Currently, he serves as Product and Service Development Lead at Kona Afrika, a literary company headquartered in Nairobi. He is a literary scholar with a penchant for trauma research and is pursuing his Master of Arts in Literature at Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.

The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).

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