Today Tuesday, June 16, the Electoral Commission Chairman Justice Simon Byabakama unveiled a revised roadmap for the 2021 general elections.
Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, Byabakama announced that mass gatherings and political rallies have been banned and therefore all candidates will have to campaign through the media.
This has put the national broadcaster, the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) in the spotlight and how it will provide equal coverage to all presidential candidates.
In the past, UBC has been dragged to Court over “biased coverage” by providing less coverage to the opposition candidates and air out entirely the campaign rallies of the incumbent President Museveni.
In 2012, the opposition presidential candidate Rtd Col Dr. Kizza Besigye dragged UBC to Court over “biased coverage” in the 2011 general election in addition to 21 million shillings he had paid to the station to run his presidential adverts.
In 2018, the High Court judge Justice Margaret Oguli ruled that UBC should pay Besigye 80 million shillings.
Currently, another formidable opposition figure, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu commonly known as Bobi Wine has emerged and it remains unclear whether UBC will provide equal coverage to all presidential candidates including Bobi Wine, Kizza Besigye, the incumbent President Museveni and others that will aspire to run for presidency.
While launching the revised roadmap at EC headquarters in Kampala on Tuesday, the Commission Chairman Justice Simon Byabakama said they are going to engage UBC to ensure it provides equal coverage to all candidates and communication regulators to talk to private media houses on covering the election campaigns.
“We are going to be in touch with UBC. For private media houses, we are also going to seek the intervention of the Uganda Media Council and UCC,” said Byabakama.
Section 24 of the Presidential elections Act says that all presidential candidates shall be given equal treatment on the State-owned media (UBC) to present their programs to the people.
Byabakama clearly said that the Electoral Commission will not buy airtime for candidates on privately-owned media houses.
“If you are offering yourself as a candidate, the law allows you to conduct campaigns. Traditionally, my understanding is that you the candidate determine how you are going to carry out campaigns, by what means, the cost and so on, and so forth. The candidates have been incurring the cost of their campaigns. The only difference now is that due to COVID-19 challenges and fears of spreading the virus, you cannot hold rallies. You will have to use the available media avenues,” he said.
“In the interest of promoting democracy and particularly with regards to the observance of the COVID-19 guidelines, the candidates should utilize the media channels to propagate their programs to the people.”
He suggested that the Ministry of Information, Uganda Media Council and the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) should engage privately owned media at an agreed cost so that candidates are given time to communicate their views to the electorate.
“There is need for us to engage with the media houses through the Ministry of Information, the Media Council and any other relevant body so that all candidates are given an opportunity. For us as Electoral Commission we cannot come out and say we are ordering media houses,” he said.
Police and Defiant Opposition Candidates
In 2016, opposition presidential candidate Dr. Kizza Besigye and four-time Presidential contender announced the “Defiance campaign” to defy all the lawful orders.
He went on and swore himself in as the rightful winner of the 2016 presidential election although the Electoral Commission announced incumbent President Museveni as the legitimate President-elect.
Subsequently, he formed “People’s Government” and appointed Cabinet although it is unlawful and illegitimate under Uganda’s Constitution.
What will happen if Besigye goes ahead with his Defiance campaign and defy the orders announced by the Electoral Commission?
Byabakama said that the Electoral Commission will work hand in hand with the Police to ensure all the new guidelines announced are adhered to by all stakeholders in the electoral process.
“In order for us to ensure these guidelines or the new measures are realised or followed, we will have to work with security agencies particularly the Police because some of our political actors have a tendency of being indisciplined. So we shall ask the usual enforcement agencies to ensure these measures are enforced,” he said.
He appealed to all the aspiring candidates “to be mindful of the lives of the people of Uganda. Why do you want to gather people in large numbers when you know the likely outcome?” Byabakama asked.