Covering Uganda’s Big Oil Debate (Part I)

KadagaIt has been the most widely anticipated parliamentary debate this year, and it didn’t disappoint.

After playing hard ball, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga finally relented and recalled Parliament from recess. This followed a petition signed by more than half of Members of Parliament who wanted the House recalled to discuss issues related to the oil and gas sector, including regularising it.

The debate kicked off on Monday and it had to be adjourned to Tuesday given the gravity of the matters raised. Some parliamentary reporters, ever cynical about the institution they cover, were caught off guard that the Speaker allowed the debate to continue until about 7.30p.m, before adjourning to Tuesday morning after cancelling a scheduled meeting of the Parliamentary Commission. They had feared the Speaker would give the debate only 30 minutes to an hour.

So how did the media perform?

The national broadcaster, UBC, covered the debate live on television, allowing many Ugandans who are not familiar with how Parliament works to hear their representatives debating an issue of national importance. Given the secrecy that has surrounded the oil and gas sector, it was uplifting that the good people at UBC had the courage to televise debate. As I write this, UBC is again televising the debate live. Kudos!

The major newspaper websites and several journalists also gave lively updates on the proceedings on Twitter and Facebook.

But live coverage—without commentary—and real time social media updates is the easier part.

The real challenge was in how the media, especially the newspapers, would cover the story the following day.

It is very easy for journalists to get carried away by the inflammatory statements made on the floor of Parliament and lose sight of the big picture—the real story.

Given the attention and prominence that The New Vision has given to the oil story (deliberately, according to senior editors there), it was intriguing that they did not carry yesterday’s debate on the front page. But they did give it nearly a full page on page 3.

Although both The New Vision and Daily Monitor paid more attention to the corruption allegations levelled against Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and ministers Sam Kutesa and Hillary Onek, they also had the wisdom to carry side stories that attempted to offer context.

“Mps demand halt in govt oil deals citing bribery” (Daily Monitor) and “MPs want probe into oil contracts” (New Vision), the two major dailies focussed on the issues raised by the petitioners, including fairer revenue sharing, high “recoverable costs” occasioned by reckless expenditure, participation of Ugandans in the oil and gas sector, transparency and accountability in revenue collection and management, as well as the absence of legislation on the sector.

I also very much liked Daily Monitor’s vox pops with members of parliament on how they viewed the debate as well as the brief profile of Gerald Karuhanga, the Western Youth MP, who supported the motion to regularise the oil sector.

What the two major newspapers did not do very well was providing background and context beyond what was said by the Members of Parliament who spoke on day one of the debate.

What is at stake here? What does oil discovery mean for Uganda, assuming all goes well?

What is the status quo? For instance, how much of the Albertine region has been given away for oil exploration? How many companies have signed Production Sharing Agreements (PSAs) with the government? What is the status of the so-called “farm down”? What is the status of licensing? Will the moratorium on licensing be lifted before new laws are passed by parliament? And what is the status of the proposed legislation? How have other oil producers handled these issues? The questions go on and on.

Admittedly, some of these issues have been covered before by the local press. But readers need to be reminded about this context. It helps put things in perspective. Some of the background and context could have been weaved into the stories while other details could have been captured through info graphics and such other tools.

Also, as more allegations and claims are made on the floor of Parliament, it will be good for journalists to verify them independently. For instance, long before Gerald Karuhanga tabled the documents that allegedly show that Kutesa and Onek were bribed, there was talk that some of them were in fact forged. These claims should be followed up. At the very minimum the other side of the story should be told, if necessary with a disclaimer that the journalist has not yet independently verified the rumours.

About the Author: Dr. Peter Mwesige is Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME). He has chaired the department of journalism and communication at Makerere University and is a former Executive Editor of the Monitor in Kampala.