By Paul Kimumwe
The media and access to information have been severally referred to as the oxygen of democracy and public participation. For the simple reason that the media provides a platform for the exchange of ideas, and as a result, the people are able to make informed choices given the amount of information accessible to them.
The media has also been referred to by some as the peoples’ “watchdog” and the “ears and eyes” of society – capable of seeing and hearing what the general public may otherwise not be privy to – for various reasons, including access.
Academically minded people argue that the media can shape and dictate the kind of issues that the citizens will priorities (or not) – through its programming, coverage and framing of the news and information. This selectivity ensures that certain issues/topics and events receive more coverage and airtime than others.
As a country, Uganda is in an enviable position of having more than 200 licensed radio and 50 television stations, boasting of a pluralistic and diversified media – outlets. Using the definition of the media as “a market place of ideas”, Uganda can be said to posses key high-end and lower end platforms for public discourse, enabling a variety of voices and ideas to flourish.
However, market and business analysts will argue that having a chain of a hundred plus supermarkets doesn’t guarantee a customer the luxury of choices – as they offer the same range of products, at the same prices. The simple reason is that they are a chain, under the same management and or ownership.
A number of people have attempted to discuss the quality of our media’s content and its relevancy to public discourse (in respect to the number of outlets we have) and their findings have been a bit heart breaking. One scholar, Dr. Monica Chibita went as far as suggesting that our media operate in a market jungle of “survival for the entertain-ngest.”
Indeed, in a number of living rooms, prime-time news and current affairs programs have long been forgotten due to the stiff competition from soaps televised by competing stations, which score lots of audience activity around that time.
Media managers understand the psychology of television viewing at home. Hardly do people switch channels after a given favorite program if they expect another in the next 30 minutes or so. The least they do is take a break. Additionally, people are less likely to switch channels in the middle of a program.
By deciding to give prominence to soaps (Mexican mostly) over critical issues of public interest, the media is by omission or commission influencing people not to do anything about the plight of their country – politically and economically including thinking and engaging in such.
The amount of coverage given to our so-called socialites and “young tycoons” is simply quite disheartening. During her hey days, Shanita Namuyimbwa (aka Bad Black) would hardly spend a day without her appearing in the entertainment sections of our national newspapers and television, at the expense of more public interest issues that could be shared.
Suggestions that the social media could fill up this gap are at best premature. As of 31st June 2012, there were just over 4 million people using internet in Uganda, and about 500,000 Facebook subscribers – the biggest social media platform. But beyond these numbers, the level of online engagement and the issues that are given priority is quite disheartening.
According to the 2013 Google search trends report, internet users in Uganda spent most of their time searching for information about soaps (television series), sports betting companies and celebrities.
The above trends are however an extension of the seed already planted by the main stream media. Today more than ever, radio stations have dedicated lots of time to discuss football and other sports; and giving tips on betting; television stations broadcast a minimum of 3 Mexican soaps, punctuated by Nigerian/West African movies.
The media rightly argue that they develop their products and programs based on audience studies, but we also know that the media have the ability to shape and determine what the audiences will consume and enjoy – through selective exposure. In depriving public interest issues, current affairs reporting and critical analysis; of airtime and newspaper space, the media is systematically creating a politically credulous people unable to interrogate issues and hold people in positions of power accountable – including media managers and owners.
And for me the question is; whose agenda is the media trying to set?
Paul Kimumwe is ACME’s Enhanced Media Reporting for Transparency and Accountability programme officer