In this blog I discuss the poll results and salient issues which underpin the responses by listeners under the Voices of Change campaign by TRAC FM in Uganda. This particular poll in involved 9 interactive radio debates which brought together civil society actors from ACFODE and CCEDU from various parts of Uganda. Citizens were asked to participate in an objective assessment of their role as democratic actors and the functioning of democracy in the run-up to the 2021 general elections in Uganda.
The role of media in elections cannot be underscored. During the recent elections, media were fronted as the main source of information about the candidates and their manifestos. The media landscape comprised 202 FM radio stations, 40 TV stations; 26,437,348 Telephone subscribers, 20,117,015; Mobile internet subscriptions and Uganda ranked 125 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
In the days just before Election-Day, political scientists, election administrators, IT experts, lawyers and security outfits were keen to observe how the media-led electoral campaigns would turn out. It was anticipated there would be an internet shutdown and increased use of Virtual Private Networks. There was public unease about how fake news and disinformation would affect citizen awareness of elections and whether social networking and microblogging platforms would be reliable sources of news. It remained to be seen whether social media would be used by propel destructive messages; whether users of Facebook would be aware that what they see is determined by their likes and dislikes, their comments and their clicks – leading to echo chambers of like-minded opinion. In previous elections, there had been a persistent divide between rural and urban media coverage of elections. Therefore, it was crucial to see whether media in general was simply an urban affair without effect beyond Kampala.
In the charged electoral season full of Ugamyths (stories incapable of telling or defending with a straight face), and situational hyperboles and trivialisations, the Uganda Communications Commission issued guidelines on media use by candidates and their agents – providing a much needed regulatory framework. The objective was to prescribe and provide guidance on the expected practice by media regarding campaigning and elections reporting for Uganda’s general elections.
The guidelines apply to broadcast media houses (radios, television and online) both private and state-owned, regulators, political parties, the Electoral Commission, and Government agencies - UCC
Expectedly, candidates should have had unfettered access to radio, television and newspapers in order to promote their manifestos. Media are expected to achieve balance, fairness, and impartiality in election coverage. In the recently concluded general elections, media were supposed to provide equal access and fair reportage to political parties and candidates during the national Presidential and Parliamentary elections in Uganda.
Political tradition says that the candidates should be out there holding rallies, going door to door and talking to people. Therefore, it was surprising to see people thronging political rallies in Bugiri, Jinja, Luwero Mbale, Nakaseke and Soroti among other places. Police laid barricades, lobbed tear gas canisters and apprehended candidates and their fans in a bid to stop them crowding. This was because the Covid-19 pandemic is highly contagious and the Government was required to put in place Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) including physical distancing and the wearing of masks.
Compared to 2016, there was increased use of social media by political campaigns beyond the sharing of itineraries. This time round, candidates shared their campaign messages and alternative agendas on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. They used apps to manage their campaign deployment, report incidents as well as results of the elections.
There was a marked upsurge in fake news and propaganda which prompted Facebook to close certain accounts. According to Facebook’s Kezia Anim-Addo, the account holders breached community standards by using fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, impersonate users and re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular than they were.
The poll results indicate that radio still held sway among Ugandans with 55.8% of respondents choosing radio as the media which influenced them most in deciding who to vote for in the 2021 elections. This category was followed by rallies (22.4%); social media (10.1%); TV (8.3%) and lastly, print media (3.4%).
Regionally, radio (88%) was most influential in Lango; rallies (53%) took the day in Teso; social media (20%) seized the narrative in Buganda in the capital Kampala and the peri-urban districts of Wakiso, Mukono and Mpigi. This is because commercial operators have tended to rollout broadband coverage along the same ‘stronger economic routes identified or stimulated by the National Backbone Infrastructure’.
It is interesting that television dominated in Karamoja (13%). Uganda television provides viewers with the excitement of the campaign trail in the comfort of their living rooms. It is not clear though what moments of the candidate – symbols and images – the viewers enjoy most about the electoral campaign.
Print media was equally important to people in Buganda (6%) and Karamoja (6%). However, Bukedde newspaper enjoys the widest circulation at 41,000 copies mainly in the Buganda sub region.
Reasons for the internet shutdown
The Independent quotes the Executive Director of the Uganda Communications Commission saying in her affidavit to the Supreme Court that the National Security Council ordered the suspension of internet access services a day before the presidential and parliamentary elections for security reasons. However, pundits believe that citizen exposure to Opposition campaign messages, fake news and disinformation led to the government shutdown of the internet.
The Presidential Press Secretary, Don Wanyama twitted Government’s displeasure at Big Techs such as Twitter and Facebook for being used by the Opposition to stifle pro-NRM voices during the electoral campaigns.
Impact of internet shutdown
When government ordered the shutdown of internet had unintended consequences even though it had been anticipated by pundits. It exhibited ignorance of the pervasiveness of the internet in the citizens’ daily lives. The shutdown was an error in judgment since the Electoral Commission would itself rely on the internet to relay the poll results. Consequently, the Government’s imperious immediacy of providing security led it to purposefully ignore the provision of other public goods including e-banking, e-tax services, e-health, e-ticketing, e-learning and e-business.
The Secretary to the Treasury Patrick Ochailap, warned that there would be massive cross-cutting losses including default on debt repayments and other international obligations.
Reaction to the internet shutdown
The public reaction varied but most importantly to netizens, they had anticipated an internet shutdown, they were not ready for the total shut down of the internet. Some had downloaded the usual VPN in readiness but IT experts suggested a bypass of the internet gateway by accessing links off the terrestrial infrastructure of cell phone towers.
In a confounding statement to the E-Trade Association, the Minister for Security said Ugandans can do without internet because it is a luxury. The Daily Monitor quoted him to have said that ‘businesses like the internet and boda boda services because they had proved a threat to national security as wrong elements had started taking advantage of them to blackmail government and promote crime ahead of the just concluded elections.’
In the end, the poll results show that radio was still king in influencing Ugandan voters but political rallies held their place as the selling point for electoral campaigns despite the Covid-19 restrictions. The internet was most influential in Buganda region which is the most connected forms the urban and peri-urban district of Mukono, Wakiso and Mpigi. It would be foolhardy to continue regarding the internet as a luxury given its utilitarian value to all manner of public service.
Critically, to many watchers of Ugandan elections will be the increased ability by electoral campaigns, journalists and IT experts to identify, classify and provide measures against destructive media including online propaganda and disinformation in order to protect Ugandan audiences.
#Uganda #Media #Elections #VPN
Mohles Kalule Segululigamba
Advocacy Communication Consultant