Without key reforms, ring-fencing govt ads is throwing good money after bad

Mr Daniel K. Kalinaki

What you need to know:

  • A key concern raised revolves around the unfairness of the directive and perhaps its illegality given the constitutional provisions against discrimination. We need not repeat this argument here, although this column strongly identifies with it

A  directive to all government entities to only advertise with the national broadcaster, UBC, has drawn protests from private media houses and a blackout on covering some government activities.

A key concern raised revolves around the unfairness of the directive and perhaps its illegality given the constitutional provisions against discrimination. We need not repeat this argument here, although this column strongly identifies with it.

Instead, we should use the crisis to diagnose what ails the national broadcaster and try to prescribe the right treatment. Luckily for us, much of the laboratory work was already done by a committee led by Dr Peter Mwesige which looked through UBC’s various bodily samples in 2016 and produced a report that, alas, has been little read.

UBC’s chronic illness can be traced to at least three key developments. First, it was not prepared for the liberalisation of the broadcasting industry in the early 1990s. The dynamism of the new private radio and television stations sucked audiences away from the dour and staid Radio Uganda and Uganda Television almost overnight.
The second was the digital migration exercise around 2015 which was done so shambolically that it, among others, left the national broadcaster without the competitive plank of having a truly national footprint.

The third and worst, however, was the shocking incongruence around regulatory and legislative reforms to turn the national broadcaster into a public broadcaster. I will spare you the details, but suffice to know that the UBC Act was passed in 2005, a year before the writing of the Broadcast Policy which was supposed to have informed and been brought to life in the law. Cart, meet horse!

As a result, important reforms that should have improved the way UBC is run, the quality of its product, its accountability to the public, and its institutional viability were never done. For instance, in the 2006 election and all subsequent ones, it was found to have given unfairly high and unfailingly positive coverage to the incumbent.

Instead of a public broadcaster that is independent, accountable and serves the public interest, UBC continues to operate as a government mouthpiece saddled with debt and serving up half-boiled fare of low nutritional and intellectual value, served up by poorly paid, poorly trained, and unmotivated, albeit resilient, workers. At one point, the Mwesige report noted, the broadcaster was spending less than Shs2 million a month on news gathering. It can’t have grown by much.

The board has remained under the thumb of whichever line minister is in charge and the recommendations for parliamentary approval never materialised. Since 2006 UBC has averaged a new managing director every 29 months and failed to wash its face every single year.
Not surprisingly, the public rejected a TV licence that was briefly introduced in 2005. No one was willing to pay dosh for tosh. It was after walking back this proposal that Cabinet, in 2006, first asked government agencies to throw some advertising money behind UBC.

The reason it did not happen then – and remains a bad idea many years later – is simply that the beggar has not earned his next meal. The Broadcast Policy says public broadcasting should be accountable to the public, and operated on a non-profit basis in order to meet the full range of public information needs in the overall public interest.

Additional funding to UBC should be tied to clearly demonstrable reforms in its management, oversight, and independence, not a reward for degeneration and statis.
UBC cannot be independent and serve the public interest if it is beholden to ring-fenced and assured advertising from government entities it is supposed to cover. And if we insist on ring-fencing public advertising, then shouldn’t UBC steer clear of private advertising?
What we are seeing is an attempt to reward an unreformed state broadcaster with the privilege and windfall due to a public broadcaster.

We must earmark funding to UBC that is predictable, sufficient, insulated from political dictates and the personal interests of government accounting officers. The funding can start small to trigger the reforms proposed by the Mwesige committee, then grow lockstep in tandem with targets on editorial quality and further institutional reforms.

No one will switch over to UBC to watch government ads. Ads follow audiences; audiences do not follow ads. The public interest will not be served by rewarding an entity that has not been reformed to be accountable, independent or even merely interesting. Is it too much to ask the beggar to wash their hands before being fed?

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 
[email protected]; @Kalinaki