The African Centre for Media Excellence has conducted a series of studies on Uganda’s media coverage of the 2021 General Election.
The studies carried out between October and December observed several gaps in media coverage including; bias; disproportionate attention to the incumbent on public media; inaccurate reporting; self-censorship; poor portrayal of women candidates; denial of space or time for political advertising to opposition candidates; among other issues.
Journalists and journalism educators interviewed, spoke in glowing terms about what the media have been able to accomplish during this fairly unusual electoral period—paying some attention to all the candidates, dedicating more time and space to the elections as the campaign wore on, introducing new reporting innovations to interrogate and explain issues, and just simply continuing to work amidst a pandemic.
But they also recognised the weaknesses in the coverage, particularly the disproportionate attention to events and the drama of the campaigns, over-reliance on single sources, the insufficient use of background and context, the absence of investigative reporting, and the failure—for the most part—to scrutinize or question candidate claims or promises.
Reporters and editors cited a litany of challenges that got in the way of coverage. They include the following:
- Restrictions on movement and lack of access to sources due to Covid-19 response measures.
- Cutbacks in investment in journalism due to the effects of the pandemic on the media business.
- Not enough ‘boots on the ground’ (reporters).
- Inexperienced reporters (and sometimes editors) and the associated low institutional memory in many newsrooms.
- Ill-prepared journalists — lack of skills, knowledge or poor attitude.
- Newsroom cultures that don’t privilege depth, context, and explanation.
- Poor newsroom planning for election coverage.
- Bribery of journalists.
- Intimidation from regulators, government officials, and in some cases opposition supporters.
- Self-censorship, particularly from fear of attracting the wrath of government officials and the political elite.
- Commercial pressures on media houses.
- Media owners who were either only looking at the bottom line or could not allow opposition candidates on their radio stations.
- The move by the Media Council to accredit journalists covering the elections.
Daniel Kalinaki, the general manager for editorial at Nation Media Group-Uganda, characterised the coverage this way:
“There have been glimmers of quality coverage within a broad spectrum of the campaign. However, the election has been dominated by two things—you had the pandemic, both the lagging effects of the pandemic on how weary newsrooms were going into the campaigns and the ability to go out and report easily; then you had the violence.
“When we look back at the coverage after the fact, we will see that we walked into a trap where we were forced to report the violence and ignore policy proposals.
“[Yes, even violence can be covered with context] but probably half the journalists in the field are covering their first election or at most their second. There are very few journalists I know who covered the violence of the 2001 elections or the shootings at Bulange (Mengo) in 2006 (who are still in the field). Unfortunately, the lack of institutional memory at the front end of the reporting cycle means that the best you can do is an injection of a line here, a line thereby editors at the tail end rather than the (reporters) who can see a pattern or even identify people who routinely instigate this violence.
“We can and should do better. We need to refocus on the fact that the country is choosing its leaders and citizens should have criteria to make an informed choice.
“I also think we are going to have to do some introspection after the fact; to say how do we learn the best lessons from what has worked? How do we report the election—not as an event but a process—in a more structured way?
“We have a lot more tools than we did 10 years ago but that is not (always) reflected in the quality of the output.”
Prof. Monica Chibita, dean of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication at Uganda Christian University, Mukono, said there had been “a few pleasant surprises” in the coverage of the elections.
“One of the pleasant surprises for me is that we are not concentrating on one candidate or even two. There are three ‘big’ candidates—the President, Hon. Kyagulanyi, and POA (Patrick Oboi Amuriat)—but NBS, NTV, New Vision and Monitor are covering all the other candidates in some form…There is a sense in which the media have allowed each of the other candidates to be seen.
“To their credit, UBC has covered other candidates, maybe more than before. I like that NBS and NTV have devoted some quality time to cover the election.
“But the old issues of gender balance are still there; workshop journalism or event journalism is still dominant. I keep looking out for a story that is organic but it’s very hard to come by such a story…”
More needed to be done, she said.
“The incumbent needs no introduction. A lot of the coverage of the other candidates has been about them being battered, pepper-sprayed, ridiculed, (John) Katumba running… You don’t get the sense that their platforms, policy proposals are getting adequate coverage. You don’t get the sense that depth is being (offered).”
What explains the lack of context and depth? Chibita blamed the character of who gets into and out of journalism school, the quality of education as well as the nature of the media industry.
“I have been teaching for 27 years now. I have seen a huge difference in the kinds of students we received in journalism schools in the 1990s and the students we are receiving now. The people we get into journalism school today are less motivated, less curious; they just want to get their degrees and go away. You may find a few exceptional students who are willing to go the extra mile…It starts there.
“A lot of journalism schools are ill-equipped to train these people properly.”
“The commercialisation of the media industry has also contributed (to the state of affairs). You don’t have too many journalists that have the fire in them and are proud to belong to the profession. You keep hearing about story count, survival, brown envelopes… The problem is diffuse; it’s difficult to pin down one cause.”13