The so-called scientific election in which media-based campaigns have replaced (sort of) mass public rallies appears to have given Uganda’s traditional news media a new lease of life.
The sales and marketing departments of different media houses are working in overdrive to come up with all sorts of packages for the multitudes of candidates vying for the presidency and parliamentary seats.
This has come at a time when the media were battling the existential threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. And this crisis found an industry already under stress from the disruption unleashed by the digital revolution and the rise of social media as major sources of news for millions of people.
In March, Mr Kin Kariisa, chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters, had warned in a letter to the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance that most media houses were “on the verge of shutting down”.
By the end of April, rapidly falling newspaper circulation worsened by government restrictions on movement in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the substantial dip in advertising revenue caused by the significant slowdown in economic activity had left media houses on their knees.
Political advertising and paid-for campaign programmes appear to have given Uganda’s media entrepreneurs, who had responded with drastic cost-cutting measures, including lowering salaries and laying off some staff, new hopes of business.
But if what we saw with the NRM Central Executive Committee campaigns is anything to go by media houses will have to do better in handling political advertising or paid-for campaign programmes.
First, the ads or programmes should be clearly labelled. When Candidate X appears in an ad promoting her candidacy, viewers, listeners or readers should be told who has sponsored it.
In the case of paid-for campaign programmes, including live broadcasts, the identity of the sponsor should appear not only at the beginning and end (as some of the draft guidelines by the regulators suggest) but at all times. People should know that they are watching a paid-for campaign programme, not a news or public affairs show. This should actually be the case for all paid-for programmes.
We also hope that media houses will not compromise their public interest mission by focusing primarily on the advertising shilling. It is very important to strike a healthy balance between making money and providing the public enough opportunities to get the information that they need to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
News and public affairs programmes should not be shortened or abandoned in order to provide more space or time to political advertising and paid-for campaign programmes.
Regulations also require that all political parties that wish to pay for political advertising or campaign programmes are given equal opportunity. Last week the national broadcaster and private stations showed live proceedings of the NRM’s meeting as results of the CEC elections came in. Should the FDC, NUP, DP, UPC and others choose to pay for live coverage of similar activities, they should be allowed to have their say.
And of course they still have a responsibility to reject or debunk the misinformation that some candidates may want to peddle in the name of political advertising.
The media’s role in elections has never been more important.
Dr Mwesige is co-founder and executive director of ACME.