Tuesday January 9 2018

2018: How stale political story will burden the media


By Nicholas Sengoba

No doubt 2017’s hottest story was the amendment of the Constitution to lift the age limit –and along the way- the change of the term of an MP from five to seven years.

Undoubtedly, it was a story that drew a lot of interest in the public sphere because of its implications. The amendment, most importantly, would determine if Uganda was destined to have a change of President after 35 years of the incumbent Yoweri Museveni or have ‘more of the same’ as former presidential candidate John Patrick Amama Mbabazi was wont to say.

The most depressing aspect of this story was that the attitude with which most people approached the amendment was with passion drowned out by cynicism and resignation. There was a general anger, but acceptance of the reality that it would pass and Museveni ‘would rule for life.’ It was viewed as a done deal right on arrival.

This reality manifested itself in such a way that adversely affected the media. Much as the matter was widely deliberated on radio stations and social media, and comprehensively covered by the local dailies, it did not significantly translate into increase in sales of newspaper copies. That is one of the most worrying aspects of the long stay in power of a government like the NRM and one president for that period like Museveni.

It is important to understand that increasingly news has become dominated by politics. Politics is the largest employer. It takes a lion’s share of the national budget. We hardly have anything worth noting in terms of agricultural production, law, education, sports, music and entertainment, science and technological development, business and manufacturing.

Most times we report about them because of what politics and politicians have said or done or refused to do about them to help them soldier on. In fact, most of these sectors align themselves to politics for favours in order to survive.
So the media equally follows the political story with keen interest. The trouble is that in Uganda’s case, the players for the last 31 years under Museveni have not changed and with the amendment are not likely to change.

The track and the tricks of the mind are the same and are unlikely to change. Almost everything about the political story has become painfully predictable.
When following debates, the side issues like brawls in Parliament make more news than the debate itself. You are sure that the ruling NRM MPs will vote for what NRM wishes without the slightest dissent. On the other hand, the Opposition will disagree in most cases by default.

In cases of corruption that touch the lives of people (for it involves money that would avail them drugs in hospitals and improve roads plus schools, you can bet that no one will be punished despite the pronouncement and drama that comes out of commissions of inquiry. Many times it is connected people, relatives and friends of the very people ‘fighting’ corruption who are caught on the wrong side.

If we encounter law and order challenges like murders, thefts and neglect of patients in hospitals, etc, most times the story ends there. There is nothing you will get close to a conclusive crime investigation that brings culprits to book. Yet the political story we have made our favourite headline is more often than not an incomplete one. Many times we know a lot about most of the dirty deals and machinations that take place in the corridors of power but are limited by legal, authoritarian and financial hurdles.

You do not just wake up and report about the abuse of power without fearing arrest, closure of the media house or advertisers, many of whom are out to appease the government, threatening not to advertise with you, thus denying you much needed revenue.
So we give a small portion of the story more of which is known in the public domain. The readers feel that we in the media are skirting over issues because we have either been compromised or are in agreement with what is taking place.

So everyone will be cautious and play safe in 2018 and beyond. The main political players have fought to make the media irrelevant by ignoring their reports on matters that affect the people and clamping down hard when the media reports about them in negative light.

Because of the amendment, we shall have to be even more careful since the main players are not about to change and still have a long tenure in the political life of the country. They will do things in the same way bent on perpetuating themselves in power and we will have to live with that.

Our main staple, politics, is getting stale and yet we still want to serve it to people who are fed up and also have the alternative of social media where anything goes, including insults, fake plus false news and anything that appeals and appeases their anger.
While I wish you a happy and prosperous 2018, I am afraid that for the media, it is going to be the year it felt the weight of carrying the burden of the long stay of the NRM in power.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political
and social issues. [email protected]
Twitter: nsengoba