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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Misplaced assumptions about 2011 campaigns

By Timothy Kalyegira

Kampala - One of the key players in the election campaign ahead of the 2011 Ugandan general election is the news media. The media shapes the views and the choices of the average voter almost to the same degree as the candidates themselves, and so it helps to examine how the media is assessing the campaigns.

The Ugandan media is caught up in a contradiction that it cannot explain. On one hand, when making their marketing presentations to prospective advertisers, the mainstream newspapers, radio and television stations claim that their readership, listenership and viewership is constantly growing, or is at least large enough for corporate advertisers to reach a fairly large audience. Similarly, many commentators in these same media often claim that President Yoweri Museveni and the ruling NRM party are still popular in Uganda, and are likely to win the 2011 general election.

In recent weeks, the foremost commentator on this sudden and purported surge in Museveni’s support is Andrew Mwenda, Managing Editor of The Independent news magazine, in his various appearances such as on Capital FM’s Big Breakfast Show of Thursday November 18, and WBS TV’s Issues At Hand talk show on Tuesday November 16 with Daily Monitor Managing Editor Daniel Kalinaki.

Speaking last year, Mr Mwenda claimed that The Independent, March 11, 2009 edition that carried the cover story titled “First Family rule in Uganda: How Museveni’s ‘clan’ runs the government”, sold so well in western Uganda that the magazine had to order several additional print runs to meet the high demand.

If this is true, what would readers in western Uganda have made of that report that portrayed Uganda as essentially being run, and in the hands of, a tiny clique all from or related to the Museveni family?

Are we to believe that ordinary human beings in western Uganda, whether for the mixed motives of jealousy or anger at injustice and nepotism, could have read that report explaining that most national resources and important offices are held by one family and that this somehow did not change their perception of Museveni? If we were to take a look at Ugandan media reports and analyses, an average of one out of every three national news stories centre around scandals - corruption, abuse of office, nepotism, disappearance of public funds, lack of accountability, widespread poverty among the population, the abundance of pot holes in Kampala’s roads, the absence of medicine in Ugandan hospitals and the poor standards in Uganda’s schools.
This is the staple news diet from the government-owned New Vision and UBC TV and radio network, to the Daily Monitor, the Independent, The Observer, the Weekly Mail, Bukedde, NTV, WBS TV, NBS TV, Radio One, KFM, Sanyu FM, Radio Simba, CBS FM, Radio West, Voice of Toro, Power FM, TOP Radio and the hundreds of other stations in Uganda.

So if, as the media claims, they are doing well with readership, listenership and viewership and the overwhelming majority of their news stories and talk show topics are about the dire condition of life for the ordinary people in Uganda, how is it that these same commentators can claim that Museveni is still popular or as Mwenda goes on to claim, even rising in popularity?

If this were true, we would then have to arrive at two irreconcilable and illogical conclusions. The first conclusion would have to be that the media exaggerates its audience and readership size. It would only mean that very few Ugandans read newspapers, magazines and listen to radio or watch TV because if they did, the endless barrage of news about jiggers, pot holes, slums, power cuts, corruption and hospitals without basic drugs would have changed their view of Museveni by now.

The second conclusion would have to be that if, on the other hand, the media is right and President Museveni for some inexplicable reason continues to enjoy high support all over Uganda in spite of the wretched conditions that Ugandans in both the rural areas and urban areas live in, then Ugandans are a quite stupid people who can consume all this news highlighting their suffering but somehow continue to support the government responsible for this unprecedented abuse of power and public resources. In other words, either the media is stating the truth about its large readership and print circulation but Ugandans are uniquely stupid in that they get daily news about their miserable conditions and still support Museveni, or the media is not being honest about their true audience statistics and rankings. Only one of these two conclusions can be true, but both cannot logically make sense.

On Saturday November 13, 2010, NTV aired a news report sampling the political views of ordinary people in Mawokota in Mpigi District and in Mubende District in what are widely assumed to be the areas of Museveni supporters. (Museveni’s former Principal Private Secretary and long-time aide Amelia Kyambadde is contesting for a parliamentary seat in Mawokota). The NTV feature spoke to people it termed “grazers” and others it called “cultivators”. Most grazers (that is, cattle keepers) expressed satisfaction with the NRM government and supported another five-year term for Museveni. The “cultivators” (or farmers) on the other hand, were angry with the political and economic situation in Uganda and badly wanted change. Now, if we were to go by this NTV news feature as a micro glimpse into the sentiments of the wider grazers and cultivators, if all the grazers and all the cultivators in Uganda were to vote, who would be the majority? And what does that widely divergent view of Museveni by the “grazers” and the “cultivators” tell us?

The other area is in the habit by the media of making projections based on the 2006 general election. Their argument is that “In 2006, Museveni got XX percent of the vote in Teso, while Besigye got YY votes”. This tendency to quote the official 2006 results ignores the glaring fact that all seven Supreme Court judges who ruled on the conduct of that election recognised that rigging and violence had taken place. It therefore makes no sense to base projections for 2011 and an analysis of 2006 on fraudulent results that were themselves the subject of such serious reservations.

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