In a bid to assert its influence nationally over private media, government announced today that each broadcast media must provide at least four hours of free airtime to government every week.
Speaking at the broadcasters' forum today, the minister of Information and National Guidance, Rose Namayanja Nsereko, said the airtime was to be used to communicate government programmes, plans and policies.
"All stakeholders in the media industry need to take a lead in popularising national symbols - national anthem, the national flag, and the coat of arms, national vision, the national interest and the national common good so as to nurture a national character which will aid the national transformation agenda," said the minister, who is also Nakaseke Woman MP.
She added: "There is need to provide free airtime so that various government officials talk about and interact with the public on national issues."
Media houses are also required to play the national anthem at 6am and 6pm every day; "All television stations should scroll the words so that Ugandans learn and sing them," said the minister.
The minister asked the media houses to avail free airtime so that technical officers from different government programmes and policies explain government policies.
"Partner with government so that all messages to be sent out go through the same transparent channel."
More often than not, government has been criticised for seeking to control the media - threatening to close media houses that host dissenting politicians. But Adolf Mbaine, a senior lecturer in the department of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University argued that no media house should be compelled to give free airtime to government. He said it should be left to be a voluntary gesture to a media house that wishes to commit to the public good.
"This thing of compelling all media houses to give free airtime to government does not smell good to me. Some media houses are here for commercial [work]," Mbaine said today.
"Worldwide, broadcast media commit certain time to public good like fighting certain diseases like malaria, fight hunger, but they are not forced to do so. In any case, the airwaves they use are a public good."
Mbaine said in any case, some media houses have been giving officials free airtime through talk shows and other programmes where they are invited and asked to talk about certain government policies.
To the chairperson of the National Association of Broadcasters, Francis Babu, there is nothing wrong with playing the national anthem, but asking for free airtime is a wrong signal.
"Running a radio station is expensive; you cannot force a private enterprise to give you free things. We have been giving them free airtime through talk shows, now I see them spoil even the little that is there," Babu said.