In the end the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance was allocated Shs6 billion in the COVID-19 supplementary budget approved by Parliament on 7 April.
The Budget Committee recommended that the balance (of Shs8.7 billion) should be “transferred to the Health sector”.
The ICT ministry had put together a clumsily justified budget of Shs14.72 billion, attracting uproar from different sections of the population, including the media, civil society, the public, and Parliament itself.
What got tongues wagging in particular was the budget of Shs3 billion for COVID-19 billboards and Shs1 billion for setting up a national communications task force (with one of the actions here described as “social media”).
The viral debate about these items masked the fact that Shs10 billion, nearly two thirds of the budget, had been proposed for “work(ing) with NAB [the National Association of Broadcasters] to deliberately show international COVID messaging.”
Chaired by Next Media CEO Kin Kariisa, NAB brings together major radio and television stations across the country.
As the attacks on the ICT ministry over what was considered extravagant budgeting intensified, it emerged that NAB had written to the former on 21 March asking for audience to discuss how the media could be supported to sustain operations at a time when they were financially threatened yet their services were most required in the wake of COVID-19.
Later, NAB reportedly wrote a proposal to government on how the media could be supported in this period, part of which made the rounds on Whatsapp.
Although “the media is a proven major weapon” in creating awareness about COVID-19, “unfortunately, most media houses are on the verge of shutting down”, the proposal reads.
Mr Kariisa added: “Media houses are relaying government messages free of charge. It is time for government to share the burden of relaying official messages with the media houses. Media houses need the government’s urgent financial support.”
Among the proposals was one asking the government to pay “domestic arrears” owed to media houses (from as far back as 2018), reportedly to the tune of Shs13 billion.
The other request was for URA to zero rate VAT for media houses from the beginning of April until 1 July 2020, and to consider waiving other taxes on media houses.
Another proposal was for the regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), to “defer, reduce or waive license fees”. UBC and SIGNET were also requested to defer or waive carriage, rental and hosting fees.
The last proposal was for the government to pay the media cash for coronavirus ads in print, on radio, television and online to the tune of Shs15 billion per month for the next three months.
Some sources close to both NAB and the ministry have said that these were simply “convenient exchanges” that were invoked to support the ICT ministry’s “outrageous” case before Parliament.
But ICT Permanent Secretary Vincent Bagiire maintains the ministry’s budget was in fact in part a response to the media sector’s cry.
“We discussed. They raise a legitimate point,” he said. “We recognise communication is very critical at this point.”
Mr Bagiire added: “So when they raised the issue of advertisers not spending, yet their bills were growing, we listened.”
However, the PS said the request for Shs15billion a month (Shs45 billion for three months) was “ambitious” so the ministry instead agreed to ask government for Shs10 billion to support the media/NAB.
“That’s how we went to Parliament [with the supplementary budget],” he said.
The PS defended the Shs3 billion budget for billboards, saying it was supposed to cover food markets all over the country.
He dismissed criticism that billboards were not necessary given the restrictions on movement.
First of all people are still going to the markets, he said. But also “COVID-19 is not going to go away in two weeks,” he added. “The billboards will still be useful even after [travel restrictions are lifted].”
Mr Bagiire said that instead of NAB’s request of Shs45 billion for three months, the ICT ministry had settled for Shs10 billion having “taken into consideration the need for sustained communication”.
The PS took issue with journalists and media houses not coming out to support the ministry’s supplementary budget and instead attacking the ministers.
“Some of these people in the media are posturing,” he said. “They [media] are the ones who made the request for support.”
Mr Bagiire did not make a distinction between the newsroom and commercial or business sides of media houses.
In mainstream media traditions, there has always been a wall (an imaginary one) between journalism on the one hand and advertising and marketing on the other.
Ideally, journalists should feel free and act independent from commercial pressures as they pursue stories that they believe serve the public good. In their books, public interest dwarfs all other considerations.
Those who run the commercial side of media, however, often fault this notion of a firewall between the two and urge journalists to have a more complete understanding of the business.
Whatever the case, the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance will now have only Shs6 billion for its COVID-19 response.
PS Bagiire now says the priority for the ministry will be the public broadcaster, UBC, which will take nearly 50% of the approved budget.
“[The committee] said the other media houses don’t need the money,” he said.
“The team is working on the numbers to see how the [other half or Shs3 billion] will be distributed,” the PS added. “They are looking at listenership, viewership, of the private media.”
Asked about the fate of the other NAB proposals, Mr Bagiire said the Ministry of Finance had listened.
But he added, “Asking the government to clear the debt owed to the media now is untenable. It borders on blackmail.”
The PS said whereas the government recognises the importance of communication, they can’t deal with the media only.
“You have to assess all the requests holistically,” he said. “How do we assist businesses and the economy overall, not piecemeal?”
Mr Kariisa told ACME that NAB/the media were not asking for “handouts” from the government.
“We need, not handouts, but the government to buy media,” he said.
Government advertising spend (as the marketers call it) is a major revenue stream for the media especially now when other big advertisers have pulled back following the COVID-19 slowdown.
Without paid-for advertising, many media houses, especially radio stations, will indeed shut down.
But, some will say, it is unlikely that the ICT ministry’s Shs14.7 billion budget would have saved them in the first place.