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Besigye, Otunnu face tough times without FM radio

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati & Joshua Masinde

Is it cynical to say opposition leaders should use adverts in the media, emails, sms, and fliers?

While in Pader recently, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) President Kizza Besigye was scheduled to be hosted on the local radio station, Luo FM radio. He had booked time and paid Shs 800,000 for the privilege. But at the last minute, he was blocked and his money refunded.

He was told the talk show could not be hosted because of an order from the local representative of President Yoweri Museveni in the district, the RDC.

The RDC later denied having issued the order. It was one of the many incidences where Besigye had difficulties accessing local radio stations in Acholi sub-region.

Another opposition politician, Olara Otunnu, who is vying for the UPC presidential flag-bearer position, suffered a similar media blackout while touring western Uganda.

This is despite the fact that he, just like Kizza Besigye, had the money to pay before being hosted on the radio stations.  The station managers claimed to be acting on “orders from above”. Otunnu only appeared on Radio Kitara in Masindi district.

Some opposition leaders, like Gen Mugisha Muntu, Besigye’s main opponent in the ongoing campaign for the FDC flag- bearer in the 2011 presidential race have not been barred from appearing on any talk show.

Mugisha Muntu says this is a strategy to create an impression that government is sympathetic to him. Mugisha Muntu told The Independent that he has appeared on stations like WBS, NBS, NTV, KFM, Simba, Akaboozi, a local radio in Jinja and on another radio station in West Nile. He said this could be a deliberate ploy by the government to annoy and frustrate Kizza Besigye.

Wafula Oguttu, FDC spokesperson, says the move to block Besigye from speaking to the public on some rural radio stations is a deliberate move by the ruling NRM party to derail his party’s preparation for the 2011 polls.

But Prof. Aaron Mukwaya, a Political Science lecturer at Makerere University says he does not regard the act of blocking some opposition figures from appearing on radio talk shows as a media blackout but a campaign tactic not just by the government but by the media. He says it also shows the poor strategy by the opposition figures to penetrate these radio stations.

“In relation to a government-owned media, the candidates cannot argue they are being prevented to access them,” said Prof. Mukwaya. “This is not a national campaign. There are so many other forms the opposition can use to reach their target voters. They should place adverts in the media, use emails, sms, fliers, since they are trying to reach out to delegates who will vote for or against them for the flag bearer candidacy.”

Blocking opposition politicians being hosted on radio is nothing new in Uganda.

On May 26, 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. Three days later the station was closed down for reportedly 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.

Scared broadcasters

The clampdown this time, however, appears more systemic than in the past. It seems to have worsened since the September 2009 clampdown on the radio stations that government were perceived to have had a hand in the three-day riots that rocked Kampala city after the Kabaka of Buganda was denied visiting Kayunga district.

With the closure of CBS FM, Ssubi FM, Radio Sapientia, and Radio Two “Akaboozi”, many FM radio stations seem averse to hosting opposition politicians.

They fear being reprimanded by the government-backed media agencies and officials.

Recently while in Bunyoro, Information minister Kabakumba Matsiko warned that the government will not tolerate media houses that “incite” the public. In Uganda, the government term “inciting” means uttering anything that the government does not want to hear. It is a subjective judgment and based on the whims of very partisan government officials and agencies. Journalists who have written about certain critical issues have been threatened with charges of sedition.

As a result, some radio stations in rural areas are reluctant to host key opposition leaders for fear of being shut down. Radio is the most efficient and cost-effective way for politicians to reach the bigger population. According to a recent report, up to 58 per cent of Ugandans receive their information from radio as their primary source.

Views of opposition politicians are blocked from reaching the people because most FM radio stations in the country belong either to the government or private individuals with strong connections with the government.

Even if there are no express orders from higher authorities, station managers block opposition politicians in order to safeguard their job or business and gain government’s favour.

Government control

Meanwhile, the government-run Vision Group is busy setting up electronic media houses and acquiring others. It has so far set up about four radio stations: Vision Voice, Bukedde FM, Etop FM and Bukedde TV alongside other electronic and print media houses. The same government on the other hand is tightening its screws on critical media.

The following stations belong to people connected to the NRM government.

In Western Uganda there is Voice of Kamwenge FM owned by Eng Godfrey Mutabazi, Rwenzori FM owned by MP Frank Tumwebaze, Endigito FM owned by MP Nuru Byamukama, Voice of Kigezi, owned by ministers Amama Mbabazi and Hope Mwesigye, and Radio Rukungiri, owned by Jim Muhwezi. In West Nile radio Paidha is owned by minister Simon D’Ujang, and Radio Koboko owned by Sam Kajubi, while Rock FM in Eastern Uganda is owned by Paul Etiang, Voice of Busoga and Voice of Teso owned by Capt. Mike Mukula. All these are politicians with links to the NRM.

In Western Uganda, Radio West which has a considerably wider coverage and reach, has recently been acquired by the government-run Vision Group. Mega FM in Gulu is also under the hands of government. In the east, and Voice Teso which is arguably having considerable coverage, is owned by an NRM cadre, Mike Mukula.

The ownership of popular radio stations tends to tilt towards a few private individuals in the city with connections to the state. The other popular religious FM radios in the country are owned by Christian Pentecostal institutions. Most are supporters of the government and rarely entertain potential challengers to Museveni.

Opposition radio?

A Democracy Monitoring Group (DemGroup) report says, “all state owned media should continue to provide equal access to all candidates and all public officers must treat all candidates equally. The media should ensure that they continue covering and accurately reporting on all election related issues as a contribution to the holding of free and fair elections in Uganda.”

So, why can’t the opposition political parties initiate their own stations?

Wafula Oguttu, FDC spokesperson says they are capable of owning a radio station but government denied FDC a frequency since the party applied to start a radio station way back in 2006. Instead they were told that the Kampala radio frequencies were used up and granting them one would cause congestion in the airwaves.

“You don’t expect every political party to own a radio station,” says Mukwaya, adding that it is very difficult to own and sustain a political station. He just cites the example of a UPC newspaper which folded.

Prof Mukwaya argues that politics under the NRM will not allow the opposition to have a smooth ride in the campaigns.

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