EC directive makes media key referee of election campaigns

Sunday June 21 2020


By Bernard Tabaire

The glorious payday the media has been waiting for may be here.
To save us from Covid-19, the Electoral Commission has decreed that everyone running for office ahead of general election early next year must campaign only via the media.

The thousands of candidates for the different elective positions will pay to have their messages carried on air, in the newspaper, and online. This suggests the media will cash in like never before.

The Vision Group may yet re-open its shuttered local language newspapers. The Observer may bounce back in hard paper. Jobs may return and even multiply because I see online-only news sites making a killing and growing.

The hundreds of FM radio stations may turn a profit for the first time — radio will play a more critical role in the campaigns because it is the source of information for 55 per cent of Ugandans, according to the 2014 census report (20 per cent get their information via word of mouth). Pay cuts may be cancelled.

With the potential good news comes a heightened demand for professional responsibility. The EC has placed the media in a tricky spot: principal arbiter of the 2021 general election campaigns.

How the media discharges that responsibility will endear it to the public, make it a lot more relevant, and consequently ensure good business in the years that follow. It botches the moment and the damage may last a long while, possibly ending Ugandan media as we know it.


Media managers will need to guard against having well-financed and prominent candidates and parties dominate airtime on electronic media and column inches in newspaper ads.

For the voters to make informed choices, they will also to need to hear what the less prominent, little financed candidates have to say some may have really interesting ideas.
The media must ensure the public hears and debates ideas and issues from all sides.

There will definitely be a tsunami of fake news and disinformation. Digital media will facilitate the quick creation and spread of candidate messages, but those same avenues and advantages will be used by others to malign and smear contestants they do not support.
Mainstream media has to be prepared to proactively call out falsehoods and misleading information.

Fake news and disinformation in all their guises (selective use of facts, unsourced content, spliced audio-visual messages, presenting satire as fact) could exacerbate an already tense electoral environment easily leading to violence. With the country reeling from the damaging effects of the Covid-19 lockdown, throwing in election-related violence would bury us even if just for a couple of months.

The media will also need to ensure that other stories do not go uncovered or remain barely covered. While elections are important because they have consequences, Uganda is not just about politician quarrels on any given day, even during a heated election campaign.

And just because the media space will be the only arena for the tussle should not mean that all else ceases to matter to newsrooms.

We will still need to see detailed news on Finance minister Matia Kasaija’s rebooted Budget, the soaring waters of Lake Victoria, the locust invasion, the floating islands, the mudslides, and indeed the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and how the money for that effort is being used.

That said, there is no reason for the media to not seize the hour and bask in it for the short term, but also for longest term. The stars may be aligning.

Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.