Mixed report card for Ugandan media on coverage of 2016 election

The African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) today released the findings of its final report under the project, “Monitoring Media Coverage of the 2016 General Elections in Uganda.”

The project, which started in July 2015, analysed coverage of the presidential and parliamentary campaigns from September 2015 to March 2016 in order to highlight good practice and, where appropriate, point out gaps so that they are addressed in good time.

The results show that although the media (especially radio and television) paid a good deal of attention to the campaigns and actual voting and produced an impressive volume of stories, in general the coverage fell short on several measures of quality. However, some media houses improved their performance as the electioneering progressed.

“We commend the major media houses for launching online platforms dedicated to election news and innovations such as Daily Monitor’s “Fact-Checker” and “Truth-o-metre” and The New Vision’s Today’s Agenda – Peoples Manifesto,” said Dr Peter G. Mwesige, ACME’s executive director.

He also lauded the media, especially newspapers and television, for increasingly relying on ordinary people as sources of campaign news and information.

“Unfortunately, these and other positives were often overshadowed by a bias towards President Museveni, the dominance of male sources, the predominance of the conventional reporting approach (he said-she said) and single-sourcing, as well as the dearth of investigation, explanation and analysis.”

The results show that Mr Museveni was covered the most in newspapers, on radio, and on television. Stories on the incumbent commanded 39% of newspaper space on the presidential candidates, with coverage of Go Forward’s Amama Mbabazi taking second place at 29% and stories on Forum for Democratic Change’s Kizza Besigye getting 21%. Similarly, television spent 45% of its time dedicated to the re-election campaign of Mr Museveni compared to key challengers Besigye’s 22% and Mbabazi’s 19%. The same pattern was repeated on radio, with Mr Museveni taking 41% of the time dedicated to presidential campaign news and information compared to Mr Mbabazi’s 24% and Dr Besigye’s 23%.

The five minor candidates received predictably negligible coverage, although attention to them increased slightly after the first presidential debate in January.

Although Mr Mbabazi, with 32%, had a slight edge over Mr Museveni (30%) in newspaper front page coverage overall, the president dominated when it mattered most — in the two months leading up to voting on 18 February.

The president also easily won the battle over photography, with his campaign pictures taking 39% of the space in newspapers against Mr Mbabazi’s 23% and Dr Besigye’s 22%. The same pattern was repeated when it came to number of candidate pictures on the front pages.

The conventional reporting approach, in which journalists usually report on events with no attempt to analyse or interpret, dominated the coverage of the campaigns across all media types. Enterprise and investigation were generally limited, taking up just about 20% of newspaper coverage, 13% of radio, and 10% of television.

Coverage of both the presidential and parliamentary elections across all mainstream media platforms also contained far more single-sourced stories than multiple-sourced ones, which is the professional practice, throughout the campaign period. This problem was far more pronounced on radio, where 75% of stories on the stations monitored contained single sources.

Although there was a slight improvement as Election Day approached, the media generally relied heavily on male sources. At no point did the percentage of male sources drop below 80% in the newspapers, radio, and television in general.

The results also show journalists often did not question the claims and promises made by candidates. This problem was particularly pronounced on television, where only 22% of the stories interrogated candidate claims or promises.  Newspapers did slightly better, with 38%, but overall it was disappointing.

In terms of topics covered, the media paid more attention to the politics, especially the gamesmanship around the political and electoral processes, than to issues that ordinary Ugandans cite as the most important problems facing the country. Various polls have shown that ordinary Ugandans are concerned about corruption, jobs and service delivery.

The results show that radio, which is the source of news and political information for most Ugandans, consistently lagged behind newspapers and television in terms of both quantity and quality of election news.

However, radio had a better balance of attention between the presidential and parliamentary elections. Newspapers and television paid overwhelmingly more attention to the presidential elections.

Throughout the electioneering season, Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC), which is required by law to give equitable coverage to all candidates, paid disproportionate attention to President Museveni. For instance, on average UBC TV gave the incumbent 73% of its entire news and commentary on elections with the second in the line, Mr Mbabazi, receiving only 12% of the coverage. Dr Besigye, the eventual runner-up in the election, received only 4.5% of UBC coverage. In comparison, the privately owned WBS TV gave 49% of its airtime to Mr Museveni, NBS 41%, and NTV 30%.

Many of the weaknesses in media coverage were blamed on self-censorship, intimidation and pressure from ruling party and government officials, ownership influences, as well as low human and financial resources at most media houses. These challenges undermined the media’s potential to provide information that could help citizens make informed choices on Election Day.

“Where journalists and media organisations lacked preparation, professionalism and a sense of purpose, these threats made a bad situation worse,” said Mr Mohles Kalule Segululigamba, the manager of ACME’s election monitoring project. He, nevertheless, praised journalists and media houses that were able to rise above these and other challenges to do a professional job.

ACME also monitored the presidential candidates’ use of Twitter, the micro blogging platform, to establish the extent to which they utilized alternative media platforms to ‘listen’ to and respond to queries, demands and debates from the electorate online. The results indicate that the three presidential candidates monitored -Museveni, Besigye and Mbabazi – used Twitter in the same manner that they use traditional media platforms—as a space to spread information, but not as a platform of engagement. As a result, there were numerous lost opportunities to engage their online followers and their networks in key policy proposals and to distinguish themselves from their rivals in the race.

ACME’s media monitoring project was funded by the Democratic Governance Facility under the Citizens’ Election Observers Network Uganda (CEON-U), the local observation initiative which is made up of 18 civil society organisations led by the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative.

Highlights of the final report on media coverage of the 2016 election:

 

Monitoring Media Coverage of the 2016 Elections – Final Report (highlights) by African Centre for Media Excellence

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