Tuesday, June 2, 2015

2001 Election Campaign - The Media Wars

James Musinguzi was in charge of finances for the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force in 2001and at some point in the growing confusion and escalating costs of publicity I called him aside and told him I loved working full time for the Task Force but I needed some assurance that I would not have to dig deep into my own pockets to sustain the work of the campaign.  He gave me no assurances but asked me to draft a budget of the items that were essential for me to operate.  I came back with a budget and after some negotiations he approved a daily operational budget in addition to program costs.  The budget of course depended on whether funds were raised on a regular basis and that was not always the case.  Each day I had to stop by the funding office to check whether there was enough money for a jingle, a radio spot, a half-page in the daily newspapers and most times there was some money to help us get by the next few hours but never enough to run the type of publicity campaign that could counter the government's publicity machinery.  There was no publicity committee to start with just individuals who were inclined to deal with the media and that usually meant Beti Kamya, Robert Ndyomugyenyi, Spencer Turwomwe, James Musinguzi, Winnie Babihuga or myself.  Beti and I increasingly got stuck with the media liaison role and covered the newspapers and the broadcast media whenever called upon.  The government controlled media which had the furthest reach Uganda Television, Radio Uganda and New Vision were becoming increasingly slanted in their reporting of campaign events favoring the incumbent's views and keeping our campaign out.  We complained loudly until the Minister of Information, Basoga Nsadhu called a meeting of all political parties and his Ministry to address our concerns.

The fact that we attended the meeting at all, shows just how unprepared and naive we were about the government's tactics.  While Basoga was indeed the Minister in charge of the public media outlets he was also vigorously campaigning for his candidate Yoweri Museveni, in Busoga.  In fact he came directly from a campaign trip fully attired in his Yellow Museveni T-shirt to chair the meeting.  Instead of walking out of the meeting in protest we sat around and took turns at addressing our concerns to this Museveni camapigner-cum- Information Minister.  Representatives of the different task forces including those of Aggrey Awori and Chappaa Karuhanga took turns at grumbling about the unfair media coverage and uneven distribution of allocated air time by government media which by the way belonged to all Ugandans.  Each representative would get up, introduce themselves and then state their case.  Naturally, Museveni's team was not represented, after all their representative was chairing the meeting.  William Pike was invited as CEO of the New Vision Printing and Publishing Corporation and he took my breath away when in his introduction he self-identified as a Museveni supporter but added that this would not impact his editorial decision - wow!  And still we sat through the meeting hoping to have some kind of solution from this clearly biased decision making process.  As our turn to speak approached, Beti turned to me and asked quietly 'What is your title?'  Our working arrangements were so informal and based mostly upon a voluntary spirit that no one had sat around discussing who had what title.  Each of us could speak up at anytime in a meeting with the candidate and the Task Force which was taking shape based on emerging needs operated with the freedom, frankness, and spirit required to keep a voluntary organization moving.  So I quickly whispered back to Beti that I was the national publicity secretary, thereby creating my future title in the task force.  Then she asked rather the oddly, 'What about me?'  I smiled and said that she was the publicity chairperson ofcourse!  And so it was settled.  We continued with the meeting, made the right noises and left with an oral agreement which we knew would be broken before we stepped out of the Minister's office in Nakasero.

So while our main opponent had the government radio, television, and print media as part of their campaign entourage, we scrounged around for enough money to hire a cameraman and a writer to follow our candidate around.  I finally settled on two reliable people whom if facilitated with transportation of any kind (bus or taxi fare,) were willing to trudge the vast distances of the campaign and bring back some picture and a story.  They were really two remarkable gentlemen the real unsung heros of the Elect Kizza Besigye publicity team.  They appeared at my door in the wee hours or late at night covered in dust from head to toe, carrying a video and some notes and immediately used their fare or hitched a ride to the next campaign destination which could be 300 miles away from where they had returned the night before.  There was always an odor of sweat around them and one admitted to me once that he had not had a shower in days as he tried to beat my deadlines and also be physically present at the next campaign stop.  Those guys were awesome.  I would sometimes physically carry their materials to television rooms, radio studios, and the press to literally beg for coverage.  Many times we managed to fluke space on the national public television but in most instances as the campaign pitch rose to a crescendo UTV simply blacked out our news.

Things were of course a whole lot brighter for my counterparts on the other side of the campaign.  Oftentimes I spoke to my friends who run government's publicity campaign from behind the scenes including Ofwono Opondo and his ilk who were at  the forefront of the mud-slinging fest.  They boasted a large budget and could afford to put together teams to focus on one aspect of their campaign.  For example they created a team, bought cell phones and airtime for the sole purpose of calling into radio talk shows to slam the EKBT campaigners and spread their propaganda.  When the phones were opened on a talk show debating campaign issues, this small army of paid publicity mercenaries would call in to try and give their positions an overwhelming boost in the debate.  Our side depended solely on volunteers and concerned citizens to do the same job, we simply did not have the money to pay volunteers to participate in radio programmes.

At 50 I know the power of the media and realize that it can be used as a powerful advocacy tool. I therefore make it my business to scrutinize freedom of the press and know who controls the media and whether it is being used for the good of its audience or a select few.

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