OPINION: How the media performed during the elections

President Museveni waits in line to vote in Kiruhura District Photo by Ronald Kabuubi

Kampala, Uganda | By Haruna Kanaabi | It is over. The results are known all over and no party is challenging the results in the courts of law. Therefore, it is proper if we start to take stock of what happened, who did what and why.

I will try to take stock of how the media has performed in these elections in terms of fulfilling its obligations towards its audiences.

This stock taking will be based on the journalistic principles as laid down in the journalism code of conduct and the guidelines agreed upon by the media practitioners.

Prior to the elections, the Uganda media committed itself to provide Ugandans with a fair, accurate and comprehensive elections-related news and information to enable citizens make informed political decisions, to provide a balanced and adequate opportunity for citizens and candidates and political parties to express divergent political views during the campaigns, report accurately and to act as watchdogs in monitoring the fairness and credibility of the electoral process.

Editor by editor appended their signatures on these commitments in Kampala known as Guidelines for Media Coverage of Elections in Uganda. We watched. We jubilated.

This was followed by an appeal by the Chairman of the Independent Media Council of Uganda to the media to endeavour to focus on real issues, not events or pettiness, while covering the elections campaigns.

It must be noted that the majority of Ugandan media lack the capacity to cover the whole country due to limited resources. There are quite a limited number in print and broadcast who are able to this. We must also note that the required skills to capture and also interpret issues within the Uganda media are minimal.

With this in consideration, the majority of our media concentrated on reporting events revolving around mainly the presidential candidates. The print and the broadcast media did a commendable job on this.

The media during the elections was not able to provide comprehensive news and information on election related issues mainly due to the factors stated above. In some newspapers where you would expect such things to be taken care of they concentrated on long stories of several events put together.

The proposed programs (manifestos) presented by each of the political parties were given less attention. The impression that was created among the public was that Ugandans are not bothered about issues but are more concerned with personalities.

But it is the responsibility of the media to ensure that people do understand what each candidate stands for. Unfortunately some media houses, especially radio stations, went to the extent of mudslinging other candidates hence misinforming the public.

The media failed in its responsibility during the exchange between Dr. Kizza Besigye of Forum for Democratic Change and Yoweri Museveni of National Resistance Movement and the incumbent over the announcement of the results. When the former said he will announce his own results the latter with threats of arrest.

The exchange went on and on but I thought the media had the responsibility to inform the public whether announcing your results was a criminal offence under Uganda law.

During the campaign about three opinion polls were conducted, two by AfroBarometer. However the media failed on the two occasions to present to the public the proper context of the polls. Emphasis was always put on who is leading without paying attention on the background information and the issues of concern to the voters.

For example, in both polls the respondents had concerns of issues regarding freedom of expression, mainly on political issues as well as poverty and corruption. No due attention was given to how the candidates were addressing these issues.

Whereas some media houses struggled to give equal coverage to the presidential candidates The New Vision group did directly the opposite. The New Vision newspaper gave candidate Yoweri Museveni more coverage and was always the lead throughout the campaigns. This was the case on all its sister papers, radio and TV stations.

For example on Bukedde TV, its Luganda news edition covered President Museveni almost daily and one other candidate but not Besigye. The members of parliament on both side received less coverage by the media.

Attention was given to presidential candidates to the extent that in Bugabula South constituency, the media fraternity did not know that there were two independent candidates.

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Generally the media tried to cover events but fell short of comprehensive coverage of election issues. Other than a few TV and radio stations, most still lack the capacity to conduct its work in a professional manner. This was evident during the relaying of results. A number of radio reporters confused their listeners while relaying results. Some could not even read the figures properly especially when they had to do it in their local languages.

The will to serve and abide by the journalism code of ethics is there but infrastructure is wanting. We must all strive for better performance in the media and embark upon further development of journalistic skills. There are many more elections to come and the media must be prepared.

Haruna Kanaabi is the A.g. Executive Secretary of the Independent Media Council of Uganda