The role of media in electoral democracy

This article was originally published in Daily Monitor.

By Harold Acemah

On June 20, the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) and Uganda Human Rights Commission organised a one-day post-World Press Freedom Day dialogue for a variety of stakeholders in Arua Town, at which I was privileged to deliver the keynote address. Below are excerpts of my address:

“I am honoured and humbled by the invitation extended to me by ACME to deliver the keynote address at this important event to commemorate World Press Freedom Day which was celebrated globally on May 3.

The theme of the dialogue, ‘Media and Elections in Uganda,’ is pertinent and timely because it’s quite evident that election fever has already infected Uganda and as in the past the media has a critical role to play in local and general elections of our country.

The power of the media to set a country’s national agenda and to focus public debate on key issues of public interest is enormous.

Most people obtain information about public affairs from the media and much as there is a love-hate relationship between media practitioners and political leaders, without the media it would be difficult for governments to perform their duties and exercise their responsibilities effectively.

People tend to prioritise contemporary issues on the basis of the importance accorded to them by newspapers, radios and television. In a nutshell, the media have major and substantial influence on the content of public debate and the phrase, ‘setting the agenda’ is today commonplace in public discourse.

The agenda-setting role of the media is not limited to the initial step of drawing public attention to particular topics. The media can and does influence the next steps in the communication process. The agenda-setting role of mass media have significant implications for public debate and play a significant role in shaping attitudes and opinions, and eventually in enabling citizens make informed choices during elections.

Since this occasion is meant to be a dialogue, let me not take too much time in the preamble, but instead focus on raising some pertinent issues as food for thought and, especially, for discussion.

Food for thought

The media should have a thorough grounding and knowledge of Uganda’s political history since 1962, not only from 1986.

The media should have insightful understanding of Uganda’s political parties, notably UNC, DP, UPC, KY, NRM and FDC.

The media should understand the history of our political parties; what the parties stand for, their policies, philosophy, ideology and approach to governance.

The position of Uganda’s political parties in terms of national interest, employment, human rights and foreign policy which are important for Uganda’s development.

The media should plan to cover activities of all political parties, investigate background of candidates, what they stand for and how they articulate issues.

The media should identify critical issues and examine how each candidate pronounces himself or herself on those issues.

The media should internalise each candidate’s manifesto and give them equal treatment. The media should not be biased, but should objectively educate the electorate on key national, regional and local issues and let the electorate decide for themselves, from informed point of view, consistent with the media’s cardinal role to educate and inform the people.

The media should give equal coverage, in terms of time and space, to every candidate. For example, stories on activities of candidates should appear consistently on particular pages. Speeches by candidates should be given equal treatment, especially by State-owned media such as New Vision and UBC. The media should not make value judgments on candidates’ speeches.

To be effective during the electoral process, the media must set the public agenda, identify the needs and problems of the country and encourage candidates to address them.

In conclusion, let me stress the importance of the fourth estate in electoral democracy. In order to play an effective role which can build and sustain a young democracy like Uganda, the media must be independent, objective and have the courage to stand up for and vigorously defend the truth and what is accepted by wananchi to be the national interest.

For God and my country.”


Mr Acemah is a political scientist and retired career diplomat. 

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