A plot to centralise government advertising with effect from the next financial year portends a dark age for media houses and in turn, media freedom. It is a half clever and half sophisticated attempt to control the media. An assault on media freedom and a shabby attempt to reverse gains made while consolidating an ongoing process to have a more subservient press.
First of all, the detail of the decision by Cabinet hasn’t been made public for debate and scrutiny by the relevant stakeholders. Such an important resolution would have gone through consultative and participatory processes in the spirit of the letter of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda (National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy), which dictates that the “State shall be based on democratic principles, which empower and encourage the active participation of all citizens at all levels in their own governance.”
That government chose to ignore the input of media owners, advertising practitioners and even Parliament on a matter that affects more stakeholders than government as an advertiser, is quite surprising. It smears the decision with ill will and sinister motive. Whereas government has advanced concerns that motivated the move, beneath the surface, the decision stinks to the high heavens.
It is a replica of Kenya Government’s Advertising Agency launched in July 2015 under (The New Way of GoK Buying, Treasury Circular No.09/2015 of July 10 2015 on Centralisation of Public Sector Advertisement and the Government Advertising Agency: Rules and Guidelines.) In Kenya, that agency doesn’t present the most inspiring of case studies. As in Uganda, it was also established without consulting interest groups and already the media in that eastern neighbour are feeling the pinch.
In Kenya again, media houses, including the mighty Nation Media Group, have struggled to get payment, with advertising revenue payments being subjected to the motions of bureaucracy and mood swings of public officials who sometimes, when a newspaper has published a story the powers that be aren’t comfortable with, swipe the delaying card.
For smaller media houses that do not have the financial muscle of the Daily Nation, running out of business thanks to production costs and accumulated centralised debt isn’t unimaginable.
In effect, the government advertising centre is a master stroke by the State to ensnare the media with the most potent bait. The bulk of media revenue comes from advertising and the government is the biggest advertiser. You know that not to get your source of livelihood as a business is nervous. He who pays the piper calls the tunes.
In critical political economy studies of the media, we say, “follow the money” to appreciate the relationship between media conduct and advertising gymnastics. Ordinarily, if you published a story that got a Permanent Secretary incensed in ministry X, they will withhold advertising until the editors and sales representatives plead and make concessions. Others have frozen adverts for the duration of their anger over particular stories.
However, other government officials would be happy to sign off advertising invoices. It isn’t possible to anger everybody in government since it is not homogenous save in exceptional times like when government in the 1990s froze adverts to this newspaper.
With a centralised adverts facility, the ICT Ministry will control a few billions of shillings and determine who gets paid, when, how, and use that as a carrot and stick tool to control editorial direction. How easy it becomes with a central facility to remote-control advertising direction and consequently editorial independence and judgment.
In Kenya, counterparts have shared, some stories have had to head to the editorial morgue because, “we are trying to get paid.”
Robert W. McChesney in, The Problem of the Media: US Communication Politics in the 21st Century, has argued on the democratic theory, which generally posits that society needs, “a journalism that is a rigorous watchdog of those in power and who want to be in power, can ferret out truth from lies, and can present a wide range of informed positions on the important issues of the day.” It is impossible to play this role in the face of bareknuckle self-censorship tagged on threats to advertising revenue.
Ugandan media since the 1960s, has always put up a fight and the and the struggle for media freedom should continue. I hope that the current generation of media owners and editors will not let their generation down and watch the gains made in the past to afford the press breathing space to do fair journalism, get lost.
Hopefully, Parliament, which needs a vibrant media as an ally in performance of its oversight function, can intervene as will civil society and development partners.
Mr Okuda is a lawyer with interest in media law and a Master of Arts - Journalism and Media Studies - student at the
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. [email protected]