In many ways, for the journalists and media houses covering the 2021 elections, this has been an election like no other.
The Covid-19 pandemic not only posed health threats to journalists, but the government’s response measures also made it impossible for them to have the usual physical interactions with many sources, including candidates.
The pandemic also forced media houses, already grappling with the disruption caused by digital and social media, to make significant cutbacks on investments in journalism, including letting go of some of their journalists. Some journalists covering the elections are not sure they will still be employed after election day.
Although the Electoral Commission’s push for a “scientific election” gave many hopes to media managers that they would be able to recoup the losses occasioned by falling audience numbers and the dip in advertising, there was always a risk that it would be difficult to balance between the public interest mission of journalism and the imperative to make a profit.
Would media houses give enough time to regular election coverage or would they sell their space and time to candidates lining up for paid-for programmes and advertising?
ACME’s studies on media coverage of the 2021 general election observed several gaps including the following: bias; disproportionate attention to the incumbent on public media; inaccurate reporting; self-censorship; poor portrayal of women candidates; and denial of space or time for political advertising to opposition candidates.
Other gaps include; attempts by political actors, especially those in government, to influence visuals in newspapers and on television; disproportionate attention to candidates and political parties at the expense of voters; lack of serious interrogation of candidate promises and claims; predominance of episodic reporting and a dearth of issue-based coverage; and the shortage of investigative reporting.
Below we reproduce responses from journalists, editors, and news producers on a number of key questions regarding media coverage of the 2021 general election.
On the effects of Covid-19
“There is minimal interaction with sources. Many people decline to get in physical contact with journalists because there is an assumption that we are exposed because we are on the frontline so most people may not want to talk to you directly. It came with (the curfew). Political talk shows are done at night, so in most cases, you are going to find trouble getting people to talk to because of the curfew guidelines. Media houses have also scaled down on their finances/ facilitation for covering news. Elections in particular are an expensive venture that will require media houses to invest or spend more. But right now there are limited resources because media houses haven’t been making a lot of money. There was an expectation that with the (use) of virtual campaigns, media houses would make an extra income and get back on their feet but this has not been as expected.” –Reporter, Vision Group
On the effects of physical attacks on journalists
“There is no assurance from the powers that be that journalists will be safeguarded and that has affected journalists especially those that do not have the backing of their media houses like I do. So those who work for smaller media houses miss out on a lot. The other challenge is that we cannot be everywhere and yet everybody is very important in the coverage of the election. When I got injured, there were many people that left the campaign trail because of that. Yet election coverage is not supposed to be a dangerous endeavour.” –Reporter, NBS TV.
“Sometimes you are scared of covering opposition candidates because you do not know what is going to happen. The attacks have also made our families remain in fear. When I returned from the trail, my husband told me not to [go back] because it was becoming dangerous and he thought maybe I could be shot in the field. Actually, I have not returned to the trail.” –Reporter, KFM.
On the effects of the Media Council’s decision to accredit journalists covering the elections
“It introduced panic and anxiety among journalists and newsrooms… It also introduced unplanned costs. Monitor covered the costs for its journalists, but imagine if the journalist had to foot that bill on their own. It would have deprived them of their right to over the election.” –Editor, Daily Monitor.
On equitable coverage of the ‘leading’ presidential candidates
“As a newsroom, we have been deliberate in ensuring that all candidates get equal airplay. However, some candidates really have nothing to write home about, while some do not hold campaign rallies. So, we invite them over for a talk show to interrogate them on issues in their manifestos.” –News executive, KFM
“The media coverage has been skewed in favour of the incumbent. We have faced enormous pressure from state operatives, from the government. I don’t know whether we have ever faced this kind of pressure. There has been so much pressure from the state to try and blackout the other side especially [Kyagulanyi] Bobi Wine. The state people reached a level where, in one of the meetings we held, they even came up with records that ‘can you imagine you gave Bobi Wine 10 minutes and you gave Museveni 6 minutes’. They had come up with that kind of detail. So there has been a lot of pressure.” –Kampala-based senior journalist
On violence and the drama of the campaigns vs issues and party platforms
“Opposition candidates have had no opportunity to address issues in this election. The violence meted out on these candidates is the unending story of the Opposition candidates. Violence is a hard story to sustain, but security forces have been unrelenting. For example, Patrick Amuriat or Kyagulanyi could schedule three rallies a day, address one, get tear-gassed at the next, detained at the last, and then thrown off a radio station as you are going on air. What story do you take as an editor?” –News producer, NTV
“The campaigns for the Opposition have been marked by a lot of drama and violence. Media loves drama. People like the drama. Kyagulanyi and Amuriat have been quite repetitive in their message — attacking the incumbent, but they have not been given time to explain their manifestos. But the police violence has created ready headlines that draw audiences.” —Editor, New Vision
On lack of background and context
“Generally, most of the reporters are first-timers. They do not have the repository knowledge they could deploy. Cause and effect issues have not been spotlighted, and context could have been better.” –Editor, Daily Monitor
“It is because of space and time issues. This is a very fast-paced election. Candidates are just zooming past. Stories come in late; deadlines were adjusted because of curfew. There is no time on a daily basis because one is in a hurry. Even candidates are in a hurry. We failed to get an interview with Kyagulanyi to get him to articulate his manifesto. They have a very good document, but there is no time to talk about it. People are on the move. Originally, they would start rallies with articulating issues and concerns of the host communities. Nowadays, police engage them even before they can talk.” –Editor, New Vision
“It is a bigger problem in newsrooms. We have a new crop of young journalists who do not value the journalism of context and background. They prefer journalism on the go. They are of ‘the forwarding culture’ derived from social media. Read and forward — no interrogation, no context. At URN we send stories back to their authors if they lack essential ingredients of context and background. It is a serious problem.” –Editor, Uganda Radio Network
On the dominance of event-based reporting
“The events make the news and our ‘day two’ reporters in Kampala pick up on that and then help the public make sense of the issues. We have actually used campaigns as sources for leads that are followed up as day two stories.” –News producer, NTV
On radio offering the least amount of time to election news
“I think this largely depends on the management of the radio station. [Most stations] are owned by politicians and some do not prioritise news. Some news bulletins are paid for and so it is quite difficult to fix several stories in a space of five minutes. Most of the time they will get content from us and just pick out a few bits and pieces of the story, unlike print which will tend to give the stories an entire page.” –Editor, Uganda Radio Network
“These media houses are owned by a bunch of people with personal interests, profit-driven people, who do not cherish much information but music, fun, comedy, etc. Besides, some are managed by untrained personnel. In many of the stations, news is not a priority; presenters who are not journalists by training, like comedians, musicians, dramatists, etc, with no journalistic skills are paid much better. Reporters and news crew are relegated to working as freelancers under poor conditions, poor pay, no benefits hence little regard/attention paid to news. Many radio owners are running away from election reporting due to restrictions. Some think it is safe having programmes that cannot land them into trouble.” –Journalist, Arua One
On the lack of investigative election reporting
“Yesterday as Arua was receiving election materials for presidential and parliamentary elections, there was a concern that there were some boxes that were delivered earlier and stored in different places. We needed resources to dig more and get this story. When I went to my manager, they said the story was tricky and we were stopped from doing it. The media managers fear, and some owners are political mobilizers and have interests that they are protecting. They do a lot of checking to ensure their interests are protected.” –Arua-based journalist
“With 11 candidates in a pandemic-ridden campaign, this election has taken every resource from media houses, requiring an all-hands-on-deck approach and leaving no space for explanatory reporting for the emptied investigative desks.”—News producer, NTV
“Inexperience of the field reporters; inappropriate planning by newsrooms; reduced resources; extreme violence; and we do not have many courageous journalists to do ground-shaking stories.” –Editor, Daily Monitor.
On the dominance of news at expense of other formats
“We had a huge plan for features and packages, but have not been able to execute it because of Covid-19 mainly. Radio requires good sound, but we are unable to go and collect some information physically. People are scared of meeting with journalists because they believe that they get into physical contact with a lot of people. When you decide to use technology such as zoom and other online platforms, you will [find hiccups] because some people are not tech-savvy, so they prefer to respond to questions on email, yet this is radio. We have in some instances tried to use WhatsApp voice notes but due to different phone types, sometimes the sound is not of good quality.” –News executive, KFM
On insufficient interrogation of candidate claims and promises
“The crop of journalists we have right now does not think beyond what they have. They are comfortable reporting he-said-she-said. The challenge is on us the newsroom leaders to ensure that they do better. We are still building the capacity of journalists and it requires a lot of effort and commitment on both ends.” –Editor, NMG-Uganda