Why the Opposition is Uncomfortable with Ban on Rallies

The proposal by the Electoral Commission (EC) to ban open-air campaigns ahead of the 2021 campaigns and general election, continues to draw mixed reactions from politicians, opinion leaders and media analysts.

The Electoral body on Tuesday, June 16, announced a revised roadmap for the 2021 general elections, barring candidates from holding open-air campaigns in line with the Ministry of Health guidelines intended to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

EC chairman, Justice Simon Byabakama Mugenyi, told journalists that despite the COVID-19 challenge, they had decided to go on with the electoral processes in line with Article 61 (2) of the constitution which commands the EC to organize elections within 120 days before the expiry of the term of President, Parliament or Local Governments.

This therefore would require candidates to use the mass media as the main avenue to get their messages to the electorate. While the announcement rattled most political players, for the ruling NRM, it was a welcome idea with the NRM secretariat’s communications and public relations manager, Rogers Mulindwa saying that the party was more than ready for the new mode of campaigning.

Kira Municipality MP, Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, doesn’t see the EC at fault for releasing a new roadmap but blames the electoral body for deciding on scientific campaigns and elections without consulting the various stakeholders.

“The mistake EC did was to consult Museveni and then announce the program. What they should have done is to consult all the stakeholders,” Ssemujju said.

But is the proposal by the Electoral Commission to use the media as the means of campaigning even practical?

According to the latest Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) figures of January 2020, Uganda has 26.7 million telephone subscribers as of December 2019. Of these, slightly over 6.6 million have smartphones.

UCC defines this class of mobile phones as multi-purpose mobile computing devices which have stronger hardware capabilities and extensive mobile operating systems, which facilitate wider software, internet (including web browsing over mobile broadband), and multimedia functionality (including music, video, cameras, and gaming), alongside core phone functions such as voice calls and text messaging. It is people with these kinds of mobile phones that regularly use the internet.

Another 85,710 subscribers use fixed internet, especially in offices. The UCC figures also show that 17,181,560 have phones with which they can make and receive calls, send text messages and provide some of the advanced features found on a smartphone. The other 3,409,724 have basic phones which can only make calls and send text messages.

Therefore, it wouldn’t be farfetched to conclude that it’s only about seven million telephone subscribers who can regularly use the internet and can, therefore, make use of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media platforms.

According to figures still from UCC, Uganda has 1.686,269 TV subscribers. The majority of Ugandans access television through subscription owing to digital migration from analogue to Digital Terrestrial Television.

For radio stations, as of the end of 2018, Uganda had 292 licensed radio around the country. However, although some of these radios are licensed are not yet operational.

Yusuf Serunkuma, a PhD student at Makerere University Institute of Social Research observes that even radio that is touted as the cheapest and easily accessible means of communication, might not also accommodate all the 4million candidates vying for different seats at different levels.

Dr. Sam Kazibwe, journalism and communication lecturer at Uganda Christian University says that Uganda’s media infrastructure is neither sufficient nor ready to handle the enormous task that the EC wants it to do.

To Kazibwe, prominent incumbents are likely to enjoy an advantage over their challengers in the share of the available media space, which then would require UCC to come up with regulations on how to hold campaigns on radios and TVs to ensure equitable access to airtime for all candidates.

“It will be hard for UCC to police all of them to ensure that they are abiding by the set guidelines. It’s going to be a very big challenge for the politicians to use this so-called digital campaigning,” Kazibwe said.

As of whether this election is going to be a cash cow of the struggling media riling from the effects of coronavirus, both Ssemujju and Kazibwe don’t think so. They both argue that Ugandan politicians are too poor to afford to pay for media space.

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