A recently released report by Afrobarometer pours cold water on the much-talked about media-only political campaign for Uganda’s 2021 General Election.
The Afrobarometer survey findings say the so-called scientific campaigns will likely leave majority of Ugandans poorly informed, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the forthcoming election campaigns centred on media, which the Electoral Commission talks of in very strong positive terms.
The report titled, ‘Feasible but unsuitable? Examining the practicality of a media only 2021 election campaign during Covid-19,’ highlights why the approach will be undermined by ownership of media houses and access to them by both candidates and their voters.
The report also cites the problem of restrictive media laws in Uganda.
The survey was conducted between October and November, 2019, and interviewed 1,200 respondents across the country.
In its revised election roadmap released in June, the EC banned open-air campaigns and mass gathering, leaving those seeking elective positions with only mainstream and social media platforms as the only options to reach out to their voters.
This now means the 2021 General Election, which takes place in February, now leaves candidates with six months to reach out to the voters, and the voters to sieve through the messages and make a decision that will impact their welfare for the next five years.
The survey indicates that 87 per cent of households have mobile phones, while 79 per cent have a radio sets, and 29 per cent have TV sets, while another eight per cent have computers.
Of the 87 per cent Ugandans who can access a mobile phone, only 26 per cent have phones that can connect to the Internet, while seven per cent get news from the Internet every day.
Ownership of smartphones is highest among urban residents, men, younger citizens, and those with post-primary education, and residents in central and eastern regions.
The report also says at least 80 per cent of Ugandans get news every day or a few times a week from the radio. But only fewer, at 31 per cent, get news regularly from TV, while another 12 per cent get news from newspapers, and those accessing news from the Internet at 13 per cent, with only 14 per cent getting news from social media.
The survey indicates that although the number of media platforms in the country are high, the proportion of Ugandans who have access and who make use of various media channels remains relatively low and concentrated among the young, the more educated, men, urban residents, and people in the central region.
This means access to media is limited among women, the poor, less educated, older, and rural citizens.
The EC roadmap and its restriction of mass rallies and open-air campaigns have been challenged in court, with petitioners arguing it will violate the freedom and constitutional rights of the voters.
However, the case filed by presidential hopeful Joseph Kabuleta was dismissed early this month by High Court Judge Esta Nambayo on grounds that there were no guidelines in place yet for court to decide on.
“This court cannot make declarations on guidelines that are not yet in place. It is clear that the commission (EC), by the time of the press release, had not yet issued the guidelines. The guidelines were to be issued in due course and the commission was to engage with the stakeholders before issuing the guidelines,” Judge Esta Nambayo ruled.
Daily Monitor of August 6, quotes the petitioner as saying: “This kind of election will automatically require all the electorates to have radios and television sets in order to follow their respective candidates and the entire election process…It would clearly be a move to marginalise such people and indirectly disenfranchising them if it remains that they have to buy smart phones, radios and television sets if they are to get information concerning the forthcoming elections because they will not afford those gadgets.”
In the recently concluded special interest groups elections, Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU) reported that several voters were locked out of the polling activities, citing issues of poor information dissemination.
The survey also says use of communication gadgets is further affected by the unstable supply of electricity.
The survey indicates that of the sampled zones, 49 per cent were wired to the national electricity grid, but only 26 per cent of the households were connected, while only 18 per cent say they have electricity that is available most or all of the time and four per cent say all of the time.
“All these bottlenecks, if not addressed, are bound to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2021 General Election,” says Mr Francis Kibirige of Hatchile Consults Ltd, a research organisation.
A report on FM radio stations census submitted to Parliament by the Minister for ICT and National Guidance in May, indicates that there are 309 FM stations in the country. The same report puts the number of TV stations at about 50, with total number of newspapers at 10.
Most of these TV and radio stations, although privately owned, have been accused of denying, deliberately or under coercion, fair coverage for all political players, especially those in the Opposition political parties.
Only 37 per cent of the respondents say the media often or always provided fair coverage in the last national election campaign, down from 52 per cent in the 2015 survey. This means more people are increasingly losing faith in the media as fair platforms for political coverage.
Questions have been raised on how paid-for airtime or space can be free and fair.
Mr Kibirige challenges EC as the regulator of elections to ensure no candidates are locked out on the basis of ownership of TV or radio stations or their inability to pay for the expensive charges to ensure equitable access.
“Without interventions to ensure equitable media space and wider citizen access, both candidates and voters are likely to face challenges in connecting in a media-only campaign,” the report states.
The Supreme Court ruling in the 2016 election petition also highlighted unequal use of State-owned media as a recurring issue in most election petitions.
But EC spokesperson Paul Bukenya says the commission has and still continues to devise means to ensure the process works for all.
He says no one will be disenfranchised.
“The first thing has been to engage UCC [Uganda Communications Commission] and ensure we provide opportunities for all persons. The next step is to engage the Association of Media Owners to provide access and affordable rates.
“We have engaged the Media Council of Uganda to come up with a framework and an understanding and to ensure professionalism. After nomination, we will harmonies all campaign programmes, including media campaigns; who is going to be where, and when so that people don’t meet at stations and clash. We have worked out a format that can enable use of media so that we can even provide clearance if it goes beyond curfew time,” he said.
Responding to questions on the role of the EC on protecting candidates from being denied access by security agencies as previously witnessed, Mr Bukenya said: “The SOPs [Standard Operating Procedure] for this kind of electoral activities in a Covid-19 environment have been shared with the Uganda Police Force to sensitise them and help them gain an understanding of how things are going to be done… we hope we will get better in our understanding and application of the SOPs, including application to the use of media.”
The EC guidelines also indicate that candidates can organise regulated meetings, with numbers of attendants determining the venue, which should be inspected by police and involvement of EC returning officers to coordinate the programmes.
“Our SOPs address all, no one will be disenfranchised in anyway by the ban on mass rallies. Candidates can do one on one and keep a distance, and most of our candidates do one on one, go with your mask,” Mr Bukenya said.
Hard time for the Opposition
Currently, Opposition figure and MP for Kyadondo East Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, is pursuing a case against government officials, including the Mbale Resident District Commissioner (RDC), who reportedly denied him access to a radio station at which he had booked a talk show.
In 2018, four-time presidential contender Dr Kiiza Besigye sued national broadcaster UBC for not running his campaign adverts ahead of the 2011 presidential election.
These and many other such occurrences point to the concerns that have been expressed in regards to the unlevelled political playing field.
The Afrobaromeer survey says this situation is likely to be exacerbated by media-only campaigns in the 2021 General Election.
Although Internet penetration and access has increased in the recent years, and the platform is being traded as a favourable one for contenders due to minimal control, its reach remains limited. The survey indicates that only 13 per cent of Ugandans have access to the Internet.
The Afrobarometer is a pan-African, independent, non-partisan research network that measures public attitudes on economic, political, and social matters in Africa. Its secretariat headquarters are in Accra, Ghana