Saturday, 14 January 2012

The dirty politics of radio ownership in Uganda

After the resignation of the Minister for the Presidency,  Kabakumba Matsiko, from cabinet over accusations of abuse of office and causing the government financial loss while she was Minister of Information, following the police's discovery that a radio station she owned (Kings FM in Masindi) was using a mast and transmitter that belonged to UBC, I thought that there would be no more stories on stolen masts and other misused UBC equipment. However, this week the media reported that 35 more cabinet ministers were to be probed for abuse of public resources (read using UBC equipment and services without paying) and it is starting to look like Kabakumba’s case might be the rule rather than the exception.

Two thoughts came to my mind when I reflected on the media stories:
  1. The UBC must have acquiesced to its equipment being used for free (despite the official line saying those using UBC equipment without paying were doing so by colluding with some lowly employees)
  2. Are there any opposition politicians being being investigated?
I could not help but think that UBC has been aware for years that all these high ranking politicians were using its equipment for free. I even began to think that maybe the ministers were enjoying an unofficial perk from the government for their support- a way of making it easier to own and manage a vital mobilisation asset.

While I was going over these issues, I came across a report on radio ownership and its impact on political speech in Uganda by the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) that put things in perspective.
The report, based on a study carried out by ACME just after the 2011 presidential elections, shows to what extent the politicians in the ruling NRM party are controlling the political discourse in the country through their ownership of radio stations. A disproportionate number of the 280 radio stations registered in Uganda are owned by NRM leaning politicians and businesspeople. This in itself would not be improper if the radio licensing playing field were level. However, it is anything but.

According to License to Censor: The Use of Media Regulation to Restrict Press Freedom, a September 2011 report by Freedom House

"Ownership in the radio sector, which has the widest reach, particularly in the rural areas, is more opaque, with a significant proportion of outlets controlled by political actors or their close associates."

It is virtually impossible for a known opposition politician or a businessperson openly sympathetic to the opposition to get a license for a radio station in Uganda. It becomes nearly impossible if such a radio station is to operate in an upcountry location.

The main opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) has tried unsuccessfully on a number of occasions to obtain a license for a radio station. According to the ACME report;

"The party had secured UShs 190 million (approx. US$ 76,000) from American donors to set up a radio station but it was denied a licence by the Broadcasting Council on the grounds that a political party was not allowed to own a station. When that course failed, the party tried to buy off two existing radio stations in the hopes of circumventing the licensing procedure. But there is a catch: the law prohibits the sale or transfer of a broadcasting license without the approval of the regulator. In other words, without the regulator’s clearance, a broadcasting station cannot change ownership."

At this juncture one might argue that the law does not allow all political parties (including the NRM) to own radio stations and therefore FDC should not expect any special treatment. However, in reality the NRM does not need to own its own radio stations because it already has the UBC operating as if it were the broadcasting arm of the party. This means that the NRM can use the government media for its own ends and it can also control the oppositions access to said media.

UBC’s lack of impartiality was highlighted in 2011 when it accepted money from FDC to run campaign adverts for Kiiza Besigye but only run very few, ostensibly after pressure was brought to bear on the management from above.

Even without UBC in the picture many party NRM party functionaries, cabinet ministers, government officials and NRM-supporting business people like Amama Mbabazi and Mike Mukula (here are some more examples) own radio stations through which they can disseminate the party’s agenda and on which opposition views are hardly ever aired.

Even private unaffiliated stations are wary of hosting opposition politicians because they do not want to get into trouble with the authorities. In a country where government authorities (like RDCs) can arbitrarily vet who appears on a radio talk-show and cause trouble for the hosting radio station, station managers are often likely to give opposition politicians a wide berth. The following example, from the ACME report, serves to illustrate the difficult position station managers who try to be fair to all parties find themselves in.

 "At Open Gate FM in Mbale, eastern Uganda, the director, Charles Mukhwana, said that the station was “always open” to all political views. They tried their best to be balanced and independent though they were sometimes compelled to consult with the RDC and the security authorities when it came to hosting “controversial people”. This, he said, was because they did not want to clash with the government. As Mukhwana put it, “We think we are partners and also they give us the licence to operate.” As a balancing strategy, they ensured that no opposition politician was featured on a talk show without a member of the NRM on the same show."

With such a state of affairs it would not be far-fetched to assume that the current probe into the rot in UBC will not go the full distance because its unlikely that the NRM government will come down hard on its faithful and also because control over the political discourse through controlling who owns and determines what gets aired on radio is of utmost importance to those that rule this country. 

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