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Govt denies Uganda’s opposition media access ahead of elections

Published April 19, 2010

Uganda People’s Congress Party President Mr. Olara Otunnu (seated right) receives a summoning letter from CID Official Mr. Ibrahim Luggya in front of journalists. Courtesy photo.

Uganda People’s Congress Party President Mr. Olara Otunnu (seated right) receives a summoning letter from CID Official Mr. Ibrahim Luggya in front of journalists. Courtesy photo.

KAMPALA, Uganda- In the lead-up to Uganda’s next general elections, there are fears the government is beginning a crackdown on independent media. Since 2007, radio stations across the country have suffered interference from government for hosting opposition politicians.

In a recent incident, on a tour of the Acholi-sub region, the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) flag bearer Mr. Olara Otunnu, faced a radio black out for 15 minutes when Voice of Lango was switched off air. It is reported that the radio signals was switched off under the directive of the Resident District Commissioner. Although the station resumed operations, it emerged that the radio proprietor, who is also an NRM MP Mr. Felix Okot Okong was forced to apologise to the President for hosting Mr. Otunnu.

In a similar case, in Pader District in February, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) President Kizza Besigye, who was scheduled to be hosted on the local radio station, Luo FM radio was blocked from holding the talk show. Although he had already booked time and paid Shs 800,000 for the show, his money was refunded at the last minute. The station cited “orders from above.”

In another incident, Mr. Otunnu in February suffered a media blackout while touring Western Uganda even before paying the fee to be hosted on the radio stations.

Dr. George Lugalambi, head of Mass Communication Department at Makerere University told Daily Monitor on Thursday that it is unfortunate that the government continues denying opposition politicians from accessing radio stations yet they also have good policies for the country’s development.

He said the government is hindering the opposition from accessing radio facilities because it has minimal support in urban areas.

“When you look at NRM government, it has not been successful in the urban areas during the election, and so they are trying to limit the opposition from accessing rural radio stations in an effort to consolidate votes in those areas,” Dr Lugalambi says.

He says although people in rural areas do not fully participate in radio and television debates, they are entitled to listen to the policies of their politicians and make their own judgment before going to the polls.

“Denying opportunities for the opposition politicians to access radio stations is not only a loss to the opposition, it is a loss to the general public and the government as well,” Dr. Lugalambi says, adding that radio access to politicians gives the electorate opportunities to explore their policy proposals and decide for themselves what they think is good or bad.

In 2007, the Kitgum-based Kitti FM was switched off air 30 minutes after FDC President Kizza Besigye had started speaking on the radio’s talk-show. The radio’s generator was switched off, reportedly on the orders of the area RDC. Within three days, the radio station was reportedly closed down for failing to pay its operational license fees to the government-owned Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC). In the same year, another talk show programme, ‘Tonight with Tegulle” on UBC was also suspended for allegedly hosting Dr. Besigye. Two years later in November 2009, the same Besigye was blocked from appearing on Nenah FM in Karamoja to address the public.

For fear of being reprimanded or shut down, some radio stations in rural areas are reluctant to host key opposition leaders. Charles Odongtho, secretary for Uganda Radio Network News Agency says denying opposition access radio stations narrows the spectrum of sending information to the public yet guaranteed by the Ugandan Constitution Article 29.

He says; “People should be allowed to listen to the opposition’s policies and later make the right decision of electing the best candidate in the next year’s general election.”

MP Benson Ogwal (UPC) has decried the government’s effort of restricting opposition from accessing the media.

“If the government is restricting radio owners not to host opposition politicians, what should we do? Should we start using satellite communication?” Mr. Ogwal asks.

It is estimated that 70 percent of the population have access to radios in their homes, according to a research conducted by Faculty of Information and Computing Technology, Makerere University in 2007.

Reach Isaac Khisa at editor@eafricainfocus.com

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