Museveni’s radio campaign tests equal media access principle

President Yoweri Museveni’s nationwide radio campaign to explain a proposed constitutional amendment on government’s compulsory acquisition of land has raised concerns about equal access to the media for Ugandans of all political persuasions.

The President launched his radio campaign on 4 September 2017 to counter the “lies” about the suggested compulsory land acquisition process. An article published on the website of the State House says Museveni was concerned that “instead of informing Ugandans about government projects … the media and the opposition politicians are spreading falsehoods about the proposed amendment to the land law”.

Coincidentally, Uganda’s largest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, embarked on a countrywide tour at the same time the President’s campaign was starting. Like Museveni, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) also intended to use radio in its campaign.

Things came to a head a few days after Museveni was hosted on a Kabale-based radio station, Voice of Kigezi. Opposition leader Kizza Besigye, whose party had paid USHS1 million to Voice of Kigezi to take part in a two-hour programme, was refused access to the show.

“I got a call from the Resident District Commissioner in Kabale who asked if Besigye was booked for the show. He said they had information that Besigye was coming and that he wanted to dispel information by President Museveni,” Voice of Kigezi manager Andrew Agaba says.

Agaba decided to err on the side of caution. He says he refused access to FDC because “Besigye could say things that are not acceptable”.

Kizza Besigye quickly took to social media to protest against radio. He denounced their actions as “junta politics” and vowed to challenge the station’s “breach of contract”. His personal assistant, Ronald Muhinda, says Besigye was quickly booked on another Kabale radio station, Freedom FM, which provided him broadcast time to counter Museveni’s land amendment campaign.

Meanwhile at Hope FM, also based in Kabale, the management received instructions not to host Forum for Democratic Change president, Mugisha Muntu, who had paid for airtime to participate in a talk show. According to online news site, ChimpReports, the Kabale District Police Commander, Dickens Bindeeba, blocked Muntu’s broadcast because the FDC leader planned to sabotage the President’s message and split his audience.

Hope FM was told to relay Museveni’s Voice of Kigezi broadcast, and it postponed the talk show with Muntu.

A litany of grievances

The events of the past two weeks are the latest in a long list of cases involving denial of the opposition’s access to the media by radio station managers, owners and the State.  In the past seven years campaign adverts and talk shows that some political parties have paid for have been abruptly cancelled, and broadcasts deemed to have an anti-government bent have been taken off the air.

These actions do not sit well with opposition parties and civil society organisations that have publicly condemned what they see as government’s stifling of public debate and the media’s lack of independence from the State.

Speaking to Uganda Radio Network in the run up to the 2011 general election, Besigye vowed that “appropriate sanctions would be handed out” to radio stations that denied him his right to free expression. True to his word, Besigye sued public broadcaster, Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, and its then managing director, Edward Musinguzi Mugasa, for discriminating against in on the basis of his political opinion. He asked court to compel Uganda Broadcasting Corporation to refund the USHS21 million he had paid for 200 campaign adverts that were never aired.

Although the case garnered significant media attention, it did little to deter future infractions. In its 2016 study, Keep the People Uninformed: Pre-election Threats to Free Expression and Association in Uganda, Human Rights Watch reported that while opposition politicians were rarely denied access to the airwaves, radio stations charged them higher fees for paid programming. The strategy, Human Rights Watch found, was intended “either to discourage them from coming or ensure that payment would be sufficient to mitigate any negative financial consequences”.

Besigye and the Forum for Democratic Change contend that a year later, these circumstances have not changed.

However both the Office of the President and broadcasting regulator, Uganda Communications Commission, say there the FDC has not been denied access to the media. Godfrey Mutabazi, Executive Director of Uganda Communications Commission, told The Observer newspaper this week that the President’s radio addresses were given priority over other programming because they were of national importance.

“This is not a political campaign but a matter of policy,” Mutabazi told The Observer. “The President is explaining issues pertaining to land and radio stations should be aware that matters of national importance supersede any commercial interests.”

Roger Ruyondo, Hope FM’s manager, says that while he understands the requirements of Uganda Communications Commission, his station was treated unfairly.

“We were asked to connect to another radio station (Voice of Kigezi). What pained us is that we were stopped from hosting the opposition, but they were not even willing to share the budget with us,” he laments.

Linda Nabusaayi Wamboka, President Museveni’s press secretary, says the obligation of stations that participated in the radio campaigns was misunderstood. She clarifies that no radio stations were mandated to rebroadcast the president addresses and no money was paid to relay the shows.

“We provide feeds to all stations, both TV and radio, who are interested in airing them (the talk shows) free of charge,” Wamboka says.

The managers of Spice FM in Hoima and Suubi FM in Masaka, who relayed the President’s broadcasts, confirm Wamboka’s assertions. They say they were not paid for their participation. “We did it for the sake of the President,” Jude Ssonko of Ssubi FM states.

A search for even ground

The fact that similar treatment would not be accorded to opposition politicians is what most concerns media watchers in Uganda.

In March 2014 a directive was issued by the Minister for Information and National Guidance, instructing all radio and television stations to avail free airtime for government to explain its programmes to the general public. A notice on the directive, published by the Uganda Communications Commission, said the free hour was required to be during a primetime slot and was to be broadcast once a week.

Few such opportunities exist for those with anti-government sentiments. More often than not, they have to pay for the privilege of participating in a primetime show in which they can question or counter government claims.

This situation is unlikely to change soon, given President Museveni’s recent warnings to radio stations that host people with opposing views.

ACME’s Executive Director, Peter Mwesige, notes that the denial of radio airtime to opposition politicians comes in an environment of fear for many radio stations, especially those operating upcountry.

“Radio managers are worried that hosting opposition politicians who are likely to oppose the President at a time when he is involved in a nationwide campaign on the Constitution Amendment Bill on land could get them into trouble,” Mwesige says.

President Museveni has indeed accused radio stations and the opposition for reportedly spreading misinformation about the Bill. During his Voice of Kigezi broadcast, Museveni said: “It is unfortunate that people have used the media houses that NRM brought, to deceive the public about the proposed bill. How does one run to a media house and deceives a whole nation that Museveni is intending to steal their land without interference? We shall not allow this kind of misuse of the media to continue.”

Reiterating his warnings, Museveni addressing a news conference at State House Entebbe on 13 September said, “I am warning those radio stations and those peddling falsehoods. They are enemies of the country; they are crooks.”

Mwesige says the current environment may breed self-censorship and create a chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of expression. “Ultimately, citizens will not have sufficient and balanced information to help them make informed decisions,” he says.

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Photo credit: President Museveni’s Twitter handle

About Grace Natabaalo

Grace Natabaalo is a programme assistant at the African Centre for Media Excellence.

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