Uganda: How Virtual Campaigns Will Be Conducted

The Electoral Commission (EC) has revealed that only presidential candidates will be given free and equal airtime on the state owned media outlets as provided for in the Presidential Elections Act 2005.

The EC chairman, Justice Simon Byabakama, on Tuesday launched a new roadmap for 2021 General Election that requires all candidates to hold the campaigns through the media in order to enforce social distancing guideline, a measure for curbing the spread of Covid-19.

Mr Byabakama said the electoral body will meet the Uganda Commissions Commission (UCC) to discuss the enforcement of the law which requires all presidential candidates to have the same access to the state-owned media outlets.

"We can talk to UCC to address these matters because they are provided for within the law. The television and radio owners also need to be educated about the same," Justice Byabakama said.

Section 23 (1 and 2) of Presidential Elections Act 2005 stipulates that all presidential candidates shall get equal treatment, freedom of expression and access to information of candidates.

"(1) During the campaign period, every public officer and public authority and public institution shall, give equal treatment to all candidates and their agents. (2) Subject to the Constitution and any other law, every candidate shall enjoy complete and unhindered freedom of expression and access to information in the exercise of the right to campaign under this Act."

But Opposition candidates have complained of being blocked from accessing the state-owned media platforms.

According to the electoral body, a presidential candidate is free to buy airtime from privately owned media houses to supplement their free access to the state owned media.

Last year, the High Court in Kampala ordered state owned national broadcaster Uganda Broadcasting Corporation to pay Dr Kizza Besigye, the former presidential candidate, Shs80m for refusing to host him for a talk-show even after he had paid for it.

In February, Parliament passed the Presidential Elections Amendment Bill which stipulates punitive measures to state owned media managers such as a year in jail or a fine of up to Shs10m for denying presidential candidates coverage.

Section 7 of the Presidential Elections (Amendment) Bill 2019, passed by Parliament prescribes the punishment.

"An officer responsible for a state owned media house who contravenes subsection(1) commits an offence and is liable, on conviction, to a fine not exceeding 24 currency points or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both," the law reads in part.

In the virtual campaign era announced by EC, parliamentary, local council aspirants and councillors at all levels will be required to pay their own airtime to media houses.

Opposition politicians have since protested the guideline claiming that most media houses are owned by the ruling National Resistance Movement Members of Parliament and ministers, and that equal access will be a challenge.

The UCC 2018 report indicated that there are about 292 licensed FM radio stations in the country and about 40 television stations.

The former coordinator of Citizen Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, Mr Crispin Kaheru, said the number of radios and television provide little space for the number of candidates who will be standing in more than 15, 000 elective positions.

"This could be possible for maybe the Presidential, MPs and LC5 candidates but very hard for the LC1 and below," Mr Kaheru said.

There are still many parts of the country that do not have radio and television stations and the EC says it's the role of UCC to make sure that all the voters have access to media.

Mr Richard Ssewakiryanga, the executive director of the Uganda National NGO Forum, said the voters should be educated about the process of virtual campaigns.

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