Besides cautioning Resident District Commissioners (RDCs) and security operatives, the Electoral Commission (EC) cannot do much to ensure that opposition politicians get access to radios and television stations, Stephen Tashobya, a commissioner at Uganda’s electoral body has said.
Speaking at a public dialogue on the implications of ‘scientific’ elections on freedom of assembly, expression and media freedom organized by the American Bar Association (ABA) at the Kampala Serena hotel, Tashobya said that while the EC has engaged RDCs and members of other security institutions such as the police and the army, it cannot go beyond cautioning them.
“While our mandate is to organize and supervise elections, there are other organs of the government that are responsible for the management of elections. We can only go as far as our mandate allows us; the best we can do is to caution them,” Tashobya said.
In June, the EC unveiled a revised roadmap for the 2021 general elections which also came with guidelines that banned mass rallies and restricted canvassing of votes to media platforms.
The ban on open-air campaign rallies, a key ingredient of vote hunting was received with sharp criticism especially from opposition political players who have always been victims of an overzealous security systems that have always blocked them from making on radio talk shows.
In cases where the security agencies have not openly blocked opposition politicians from accessing the media houses, they quietly intimidate the radio owners against hosting some politicians.
But this did not stop Tashobya from emphasizing that the media under the EC’s guidelines for the 2021 general elections is required to accord balance and equal opportunity to all candidates and political parties to reach the electorate.
To avoid a clash of candidates on radio or TV stations, Tashobya said, candidates will have to harmornise their programs for radio appearances with the respective district returning officers and security chiefs.
Media houses have also been asked to make public their rate cards, program schedules and cost of broadcasting their programs such that the electoral body can ensure that all candidates are treated fairly.
But Dr. Innocent Nahabwe, the vice-chairperson of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) disagreed with Tashobya on this requirement.
“Having the rate card shared is not enough because we know that most of the radios don’t follow the rate card. We shared that with UCC [Uganda Communications Commission] and we told them that it is very difficult for them to determine what we charge,” Nahabwe said.
Nahabwe also warned that since most media houses are business entities, they are not willing to offer free airtime to candidates who can’t pay.
The UCC came under criticism for allegedly hiding under the requirement to enforce minimum broadcasting standards to gag the media which is likely to impact on civic participation.
Abdul-Salam Waiswa, the head of legal services at UCC defended the regulator’s actions, throwing part of the blame to the electorate and Parliament that enacts the laws being enforced by UCC.
“As a government body, my role is to implement the law as is; not to define the law, not to veer off what the law says and begin imagining what I think is right, it is about the law. The law is set by the institutions and people you interface with,” Waiswa said.
“As the media, this is our chance to tell the electorate that the quality of the people you send to Parliament means the outcome. The main output of Parliament is law; if the people making our laws are not good enough in our view as Ugandans, this is our chance to ensure that those of us who consider ourselves capable of coming up with better laws, we take on the mantle,” he added.