“The Frontline”, a popular programme on NBS TV, ended abruptly on Thursday, 28 July 2022. This followed a live on-air disagreement between two panellists — Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago and Uganda Media Centre Executive Director Ofwono Opondo.
The said show seemed balanced with four panellists — two from the government and two from the political opposition. The topic at hand, before the show degenerated, was about the chaotic by-elections in the Soroti City East constituency that had been won by the ruling NRM’s candidate, Edmund Herbert Ariko. As expected, the opposition panellists came out strongly with condemnation of the malpractice in the by-election, while the government panellists were on the defensive.
The role of the media, broadcasting
The media, and broadcasting, is an important and integral resource to public participation. It provides information, fora for public debate and enables the people to make informed decisions. The media therefore becomes even more crucial in electoral contests when key decisions are to be made by citizens.
Indeed, the Soroti by-election had been given adequate attention by the media, and all the issues and challenges therein had been brought to various audiences. It is in the heat of this moment, in the immediate declaration of the winner, that the NBS TV show commenced.
Minimum Broadcasting Standards
Broadcasting in Uganda is mainly regulated by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) through the Uganda Communications Act, 2013. The Fourth Schedule of the Act provides for Minimum Broadcasting Standards, which state as follows:
A broadcaster or video operator shall ensure that—
(a) any programme which is broadcast—
(i) is not contrary to public morality;
(ii) does not promote the culture of violence or ethnical prejudice among the public, especially the children and the youth;
(iii) in the case of a news broadcast, is free from distortion of facts;
(iv) is not likely to create public insecurity or violence;
(v) is in compliance with the existing law;
(b) programmes that are broadcast are balanced to ensure harmony in such programmes;
(c) adult-oriented programmes are appropriately scheduled;
(d) where a programme that is broadcast is in respect to a contender for a public office, that each contender is given equal opportunity on such a programme.
There is nothing objectionable about broadcasters being enjoined to observe these standards to ensure good, harmless, and balanced content, although political and media watchers in Uganda hold the view that these ‘standards’ are deliberately vague to ensure they can be interpreted and enforced narrowly to achieve certain political goals.
As Jjuuko (2015) has succinctly argued, the requirement that broadcast programmes should not be “likely to create public insecurity or violence” is political in the sense that the NRM government, for example, considers the activities of the political opposition a danger to security.
Despite this and other concerns, including a selective application of the regulations, they generally contain some elements that if properly followed could save the public from the kind of situation that unfolded on the NBS TV on Thursday night.
As various oversight bodies such as ARTICLE 19 have pointed out, unregulated broadcasting can itself be a danger to freedom of expression and freedom of the media. What we need therefore is independent, fair and progressive regulation for broadcasting.
Right decision or rather late?
As soon as Mr Opondo rose from his seat and charged at Mr Lukwago, the show switched to commercials and thus shielded the viewers from the possibility of violent scenes on live TV. The show airs at 10 p.m. when families may still be gathered before, during or after dinner. The decision to remove the show from public view at that moment was the right one.
However, viewers of the show at that moment could see that the discussion had already degenerated into a shouting match between the two men, with the moderator struggling to cool tempers.
The show should probably have taken a break a little earlier. Moderators, and producers, should perhaps be more prudent in reading situations that are likely to spill over into embarrassing fights and stop them.
NBS Television reaction
The NBS TV management released a statement on Friday, 29 July, 2022, signed by its head of corporate affairs. The statement condemned the “unfortunate incident” because it violates the station’s “Editorial Policy and the Minimum Broadcasting Standards”.
The station promised to investigate the matter and “take action to find an amicable resolution.” This is a fair statement, but it is hoped that NBS can commit to improving its on-air management of guests to avoid similar situations.
This is not the first time such an altercation has happened at the station. In 2012, Finance Minister Matia Kasaija walked out of the Morning Breeze show, during a heated debate on why the government had cancelled plans to hold a national census.
In 2017, Tamale Mirundi, a senior presidential advisor on media issues, charged at Simon Muyanga Lutaaya, a show host of the show, ‘one on one with Tamale Mirundi,’ when he was asked to clear the air about a land wrangle that he was involved in.
While the incident at NBS was unfortunate, there is no justification for a clampdown on TV talk shows or broadcasting or even the media at all. Public discussions on media platforms are too important to be abridged because of individual shortcomings.
Media houses should thus look more into their internal regulations to forestall such occurrences. Putting regulations in place and informing guests about them in advance and ensuring adherence to them is important. Moderators can also halt discussions in good time if guests become unruly and uncontrollable. Guests who do not adhere to the rules of engagement on air can also be sanctioned in a fair and justifiable manner.
A discussion by broadcasters on steps to take to ensure standardization across the sub-sector may be necessary. This will in turn ensure minimal external involvement, with the risk of harm. Minimum broadcasting standards have a place in ensuring a well-regulated broadcasting industry, but self-regulation is the best way to start on sorting out the shortcomings of this nature.
This writer, Dr. Adolf Mbaine (PhD) is a lecturer at Makerere University, Department of Journalism and Communication.