Ever since June 16 when the Electoral Commission (EC) announced that political campaigns for 2021 General Election will be conducted mainly through the media to mitigate the likely intensification of the spread of Covid-19, debate has been rife regarding the practicality and legality of such media-based campaigns.
Interestingly, both proponents and critics of the EC plan, cite the same statistics on ownership, access and use of both traditional media and the trendier web-enabled platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to make their case.
For instance, whereas proponents of the plan argue that the viability of campaigns over radio based on the fact that up to 80 of all Ugandan households own or have access to a radio set, critics hinge on the remaining per cent who do not to argue otherwise.
Moreover, they further scrutinise, particularly by gender and age, who actually owns and accesses the radio set within a household thus, at least theoretically, bolstering the percentage of the have-nots given how women and young people constitute majority members of households.
While the EC’s critics choose to ignore it completely, proponents of the electoral body too fail to emphasise in very clear terms a very glaring fact of Ugandan elections, that is; they have always been conducted mainly through the media. Such obvious omission by critics and failure by proponents to articulate this fact has the effect of overshadowing or undermining the real challenges of a media-based campaign.
These include, among others the freeness with which a candidate can appear on any radio, television or write into a newspaper to articulate her agenda, and the financial cost of doing so. These challenges of election bribery, intimidation or ballot stuffing have been bemoaned on every election cycle and institutions empowered to rectify them have failed to move the needle.
History of mediating elections
The highly mediated nature of Ugandan elections to date has also risen in tandem with the growth and spread of, especially broadcast media and radio in particular. Being the most common medium in Uganda, hundreds of privately-owned radio stations through which majority of Ugandans are informed, have shored up the competitiveness of politics in the country.
Elections is such a big story to the extent that Ugandan newsrooms change their normal work/production routines and devote substantial financial and human resources as well as time and space to report on them, assigning reporters to follow each of the main contestants wherever they go on their campaign trails.
Knowing this, candidates in turn go to the nines to be the toast of every news outlet/platform that exists since domination of media spaces to date more or less equals domination of the political race.
Media monitoring of the 2016 General Election by the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) concluded that Uganda’s media had increased their coverage of general elections, attributing it directly to the exponential growth of the sector. There were at least 190 more radio stations in 2016 than existed during the 2011 General Election where media monitoring by the Media Monitoring Network (MEMONET) also reported a great improvement in the periodicity and volume of election coverage. The first time that media coverage of elections had been tracked and analysed.
During the Constituent Assembly elections under the NRM government in 1994, there were three radio stations: the State-owned Radio Uganda and the privately-owned Capital and Sanyu FM stations. By the first presidential election campaigns under the NRM two years later in 1996, FM stations had multiplied five times and acquired unbelievable importance in politics as in entertainment, business and elsewhere. Say, if someone or a product wanted to be taken seriously, they had to get on radio, which is why advertising took off at supersonic speed.
Such was the novelty of FM radio, it was an astounding attraction. People made it a point to visit stations and often paid to be shown around and to have the chance to send their greetings in real time through a very short, flattering interview with any given presenter in studio at the time. Such mesmerisation naturally extended as much to political programming/advertising as to any other type of programme.
It might be recalled that the first fierce presidential election campaigns in 2001 turned on former NRM stalwart Bidandi Ssali’s famous radio advert that played on the loop: “Olina kewekoledde? Olina abaana…Londa Museveni” (Have you made an investment? Do you have children...Vote Museveni). By the time Uganda worked its way out of the 2001 political contest and the one that followed in 2006, Mr Ssali had fallen out with NRM and the number of FM licences had shot up from 14 in 1996 to around 155. Radio had become ubiquitous to politics.
That the media have been very central to elections in Uganda is underlined by how prominently they have been a key point of contention in all three presidential election petitions that have sought to overturn poll outcomes in 2001, 2006 and, more recently, in 2016.
As a matter of fact, in the latter petition, the Supreme Court found that State-owned media had failed in their constitutional duty to all presidential candidates and recommended that electoral laws should be amended so that any State organ or officer who enables such failure can be held liable. Unfortunately, that has not happened yet, which speaks to where the real challenges of a media-based and driven campaign lie.
The government’s reluctance to undertake not just this media-related amendment to the law but comprehensive electoral reforms is part of the mess. Something its opponents and foreign backers have consistently said are critical for the credibility of a free and fair political contest.
So, while on one hand the electorate are compelled to rely on the media for nearly all their election information, on the other, candidates do everything in their powers to hog as much media space as possible in order to crowd out their competition, control the flow of news and lead the press in their favour.
This is why in Uganda and across much of Africa, incumbents tend to monopolise the media, including the public broadcaster even when it is clearly bound by law to equality, fairness, neutrality and impartiality. The logic is simple: She/he who the media is constantly harping about imprints him/herself on the public/electorate’s psyche. After all, out of sight is out of mind.
Wooing absent voters
Anywhere across the world where competitive politics exist, including even where it is only a charade, the campaign stump is hardly designed as a place to articulate a candidate’s agenda. For that to happen, it requires a much closer interaction than a mass rally enables where the candidate’s audience can raise their concerns and query a candidates promises since campaigns are aimed at convincing people who are undecided or outright unsupportive.
That is why smaller meetings are organised, surrogates exist to grind into the candidate’s plans, and door-to-door canvassing takes place – what in Uganda is commonly known as kakuyege but scarcely happens in campaigns. Most of these close interaction events happen away from the glare of the media but no serious candidate would pass up an opportunity to appear, especially on radio or television to do the same – even if it requires her to move on the fly from Kidepo to Kisoro; the longest stretch across Uganda from the farthest tip north-east to the same south-west of the country.
As it is then, the essence of a mass campaign rally is a performative stage where the media is the primary audience. It is set up less to charm the few people who turn up but more the majority who do not. After all, many of those who show up, tend to already support the candidate.
The goal then is to project a groundswell enthusiasm in the candidate so as to generate buzz and media coverage of her campaign in order that many more people who do not attend the rallies can hear more about the candidate and offer their support.
In the parlance of campaign media strategies, such coverage is termed as earned press (as opposed to what candidates pay for in political advertising). Candidates and their campaign teams go to any length to gain such priceless coverage by hiring crowds if they lack genuine support to create the illusion that they command overwhelming support because they are very certain that the crowds one pulls, even as these are always considerably small, determine, under normal circumstances, the extent to which the media is attracted towards one’s candidature.
Such fakery is a deceptive practice of presenting an orchestrated marketing or public relations campaign and is not unheard of in Ugandan context. Otherwise, there would be no need for some political camps to always bus people to their rallies and/or complain viciously when, in their view, the media do not reflect the full extent of the huge turnout to their campaign rally.
It is this jostling for media attention that lends credence to the fact that the media rivals, if not outright triumphs, look at the campaign trail as the main battleground for popular political support.
Paying the piper and press freedom
There is a popular observation attributed to American journalist and essayist A.J Liebling that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”. This remark sums up the core challenges of the media-based and driven election campaigns that the EC has proposed so far as it roundly debunks the myth, proudly propagated in Article 29 (1) (a) of the constitution, that regardless of creed or stripe, “Every person shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media.”
An exploratory study by ACME in 2011 on the impact of radio ownership on political speech in Uganda revealed how decisions to grant or deny someone airtime on the privately-owned radio stations, through which majority of Ugandans get their news and information, depends on the person’s politics relative to the owner’s or her other political considerations or calculations.
Hardly any radio proprietor wants to antagonise the government, which many directly belong to or support as guarantee of safety for their business interests. The financial cost of doing so is not worth advancing the cause of free speech, expression and media so that people are exposed to all manner of ideas and can, therefore, make well-informed political choices as a result to the betterment of the country’s political and socioeconomic life.
ACME’s report titled: ‘The views expressed must represent those of management: Radio ownership and its impact on political speech in Uganda’ indicates that It is a cheeky play on the common disclaimer that often accompanies the slogan; ‘The views expressed on this show/programme are not necessarily those of this radio station or management’.
The report was inspired by persistent complaints by Opposition candidates and politicians during the 2011 General Election that certain radio owners in various parts of the country had denied them access to the airwaves apparently because of their political positions. It traces the roots of the radios’ acquiescence to the government to how licences to operate radio stations are issued, which deliberately disfavours individuals or entities perceived as government opponents and critics.
The issuer of communications licences is the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), which has gained notoriety for tightly policing airwaves. It wastes no time to swing its axe whenever the government is displeased with a particular broadcast. Its common pretext is always enforcing minimum broadcasting standards, which strangely applies only to programmes of a political nature.
Recently, it began requiring all broadcast stations to run a notice on the loop telling whoever listens that UCC regulates them, which serves no purpose other than a constant self-reminder to the stations that they submit to the regulator’s will.
A rarely acknowledged factor that explains why, especially private radio stations hardly push back against the status quo and the restrictions it imposes on them is the fact they were never primarily set up to improve political life through advancement of free speech, expression and the widest access possible to all contending views and ideas. Rather, right from their start in 1993 to date, they were and have remained essentially businesses where, like all businesses, care for the bottom line takes precedence over anything else.
So, even if politically motivated restrictions to access the airwaves were set aside, any election campaigns conducted mainly through the media would inevitably be financially too costly for many candidates across the political spectrum because in a liberalised free market economy, like Uganda claims to operate, opportunistic hikes in prices for commodities that come in sudden high demand are the norm. Transport companies freely do it during major festive seasons such as Christmas and people who are unable to afford the new fares to their villages stay back wherever they are.
What then would stop media houses from doing the same? The solution would be for the government to decree a flat rate for any airtime taken out for campaign purposes. Yet to do so, it would be required to cede its control of the media, which it relies on to safeguard and amplify its own electoral fortunes.