Media Dynamics in Uganda: Bridging divides in the digital era

Christopher Burke is the managing director of WMC Africa, a communications and advisory agency in Kampala, Uganda.

Christopher Burke is the managing director of WMC Africa, a communications and advisory agency in Kampala, Uganda.

Uganda’s rich tapestry of media outlets paints a complex picture of diversity, challenges, and opportunities in the ever-evolving landscape of information dissemination. Even a cursory examination of Uganda’s dynamic media environment reveals deep divides between urban and rural areas and the associated demographic differences heavily influenced by the disproportionate number of young people referred to as the youth bulge.  Over three-quarters (78 per cent) of the population are below the age of 35. Another important characteristic is the relatively low penetration of the internet and social media across the country.

Uganda’s media landscape comprises a variety of platforms, each resonating differently across the diverse tapestry of the nation. FM radio stands as a key protagonist and plays a vital role, especially in rural areas where access to technology remains limited. Television, on the other hand, has experienced growth spurred by the availability of affordable TV sets, developments in electrification across the country and improvements in signal penetration related to the digital migration implemented in 2015. Print media, however, continues to faces challenges as digital platforms ascend to prominence.

Statistics provide an informative glimpse into Uganda’s media ecosystem. The country today boasts 253 operational FM radio stations, 67 TV stations and three digital terrestrial stations. These digital terrestrial stations, broadcasting television signals using digital technology, highlight the ongoing technological transition. Print media comprises three daily newspapers, three weeklies, three prominent regional newspapers and three tabloids.  Print media remains strong in urban areas, but the daily circulation numbers of some papers has dropped by up to 50 percent over the past decade due to the growth in digital media.  Within this mosaic, over 20 magazines contribute to the visual landscape, complemented by more than a thousand billboards managed by three leading suppliers.

Internet penetration stands at only 24.6 percent of the population in 2023. Moreover, only 2.05 million Ugandans access social media regularly representing a meager 4.3 percent of the population.  This leaves a very significant 95.7 percent of Uganda beyond the digital realm. This digital divide is a palpable reality and not only influences the consumption of information consumption, but societal participation.

The differentiation across urban and rural areas is a critical factor that cannot be overlooked. In rural regions, where internet access is relatively limited the influence of traditional media, particularly FM radio, remains paramount. People in these areas often find themselves excluded from the rapid flow of information that characterizes the digital age.  People in rural areas are less able to actively engage in shaping public discourse or connect with broader cultural and societal norms.

Conversely, in urban areas where internet access is more prevalent, online platforms serve as powerful mediums for disseminating information, shaping public opinion and influencing policy decisions. The urban populace is often more affluent and more is more reliant on social media channels, online news platforms and digital communication tools to stay informed and connected. The speed and reach of information dissemination through these channels provides for more rapid awareness-building and the mobilization of support for various causes.

Opinion leaders in urban areas play a pivotal role in shaping public discourse by leveraging their online presence to advocate for specific viewpoints and endorse particular products and services.  Decision-makers within government and civil society are increasingly recognizing the importance of bridging this digital gap. Efforts are underway to expand internet access and promote digital literacy in rural areas to empower marginalized communities with the tools needed to participate in the evolving media landscape. As these initiatives progress, it is anticipated that the media narrative in Uganda will become more inclusive reflecting a broader spectrum of voices and perspectives.

Uganda’s socio-economic landscape introduces another layer of complexity to this narrative. The National Household Survey 2019/20 reports significant levels of poverty rates.  According to the study 33.8 percent of the rural population and 19.8 percent of the urban population live in poverty. While President Museveni declared Uganda a middle-income country in 2022, the World Bank continues to classify Uganda as a developing nation. The economic disparities, coupled with a substantial portion of the population engaged in the subsistence economy underscore the importance of a nuanced media landscape that caters to diverse socio-economic realities.

Literacy is another critical factor in media engagement. A Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) report from last year indicates an improvement in literacy rates, with approximately 76.5 percent of Ugandans being literate in 2020 up from 74 percent in 2016/17. However, gender dynamics persist with 81 percent of men and 72 percent of women considered literate. This underscores the need for media content that is not only accessible, but also sensitive to diverse literacy levels and gender-specific considerations.

The convergence of traditional media with online platforms is reshaping the landscape. Cognizant of changing audience preferences, newspapers and TV stations are expanding their digital presence. This shift not only broadens the reach of established media outlets, but creates new avenues for dialogue. Online spaces allow for real-time interactions and foster a more immediate and participatory relationship between media and consumers. As digital platforms become increasingly integrated into everyday life, media will become more inclusive and accessible.

Uganda’s media dynamics reflect the nation’s diverse fabric encompassing both challenges and opportunities. The differentiation across urban and rural areas, coupled with economic disparities and varying literacy levels and the prominence of the youth bulge necessitates a nuanced approach to media engagement. Ongoing efforts to bridge the digital gap and promote inclusivity in media access hold the promise of creating a more equitable and representative media landscape that resonates with the aspirations and concerns of Uganda’s diverse population, particularly its vibrant youth. Media will only become more important in communicating, educating and shaping narratives across the diverse and dynamic spectrum of Ugandan society.

The writer, Christopher Burke is the managing director of WMC Africa, a communications and advisory agency in Kampala, Uganda.  He has over 25 years’ experience working on a broad range of issues in social, economic, and political development, communications, governance, and peace-building based in in Asia and Africa.  

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