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Govt in Shs 3 billion media blitz over oil

Talk-show hosts, opinion writers, editors targeted

Faced with negative publicity and hostility as pressure mounts on the economy and oil related corruption, the government has come up with an aggressive media campaign to help it regain public trust.

Drawn by the Uganda Media Centre (UMC), the charm offensive will cost Shs 3.2bn annually. The Observer has seen a document dated November 2011, prepared by the Uganda Media Centre, indicating that the government will spend Shs 67 million weekly, and Shs 268 million monthly on the exercise.

Sources have told us the campaign aims to improve the public relations of Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and Internal Affairs minister Hilary Onek, whom Parliament wants to step aside pending a parliamentary investigation into bribery allegations against them in relation to the oil sector.

However, the Centre’s executive director, Fred Opolot, who admitted to drawing the budget, said it has nothing to do with Mbabazi. He said the purpose of the campaign is to clearly explain and clarify misinformation surrounding the current debate on corruption in the oil sector.

“I would like to refute any intuition that our work is aimed at saving individuals. It’s not about the Prime Minister; it’s part and parcel of our work. It’s all about the need for us to explain and clarify on those contentious issues to the public,” Opolot said.

He added: “There are contentious issues being debated in Parliament, and Ugandans are interested  . . . The debate is about how government has carried out its work in relation to the oil sector, which we need to explain.”

Radio, TV hosts

According to the document, the bulk of the media campaign budget (Shs 68.8m monthly) will be spent on facilitating radio and television hosts, DJs and editors. Some 86 radio and TV stations countrywide have been targeted, with two people from each one of them to be paid Shs 100,000 per week.

In addition, 320 people countrywide, whom the UMC calls media activists, are to each pocket Shs 50,000 per week, amounting to Shs 64 million per month. The memo says this money will cater for “transport” to Ebimeeza (political talk-shows) and “airtime” for radio call-in programmes.

An additional Shs 30 million is to be set aside to facilitate meetings of those “media activists.” Sixty meetings are planned to be held every month, with each meeting budgeted to cost Shs 500,000.

Members of Parliament and other political leaders are also targeted. In this category, 45 people will each get Shs 300,000 per week, amounting to Shs 54m per month. This money will be used to facilitate politicians’ interaction with editors and talk-show hosts in 15 targeted areas. The campaign will target three politicians from each of these areas, who will provide region-specific information for the media.

Letter writers

Fifteen writers of letters and opinion articles in newspapers and researchers have also been identified, and will each be paid a weekly stipend of Shs 100,000, which translates to Shs 6m per month.

Opolot explained this by saying: “We do identify [writers] who are passionate about government policy and we facilitate their writing.”

The document further budgets for Shs 19.2m to be spent on reporters and editors from eight publications per month. The publications are: The Observer, New Vision, Daily Monitor, Red Pepper, Bukedde, Orumuri, Etop and Rupiny. Three people are to be selected from each of the eight publications, with each of them to get Shs 200,000. It is not clear how this will work, as most media houses do not tolerate such facilitation, at least officially.

Opolot said the payments are not bribes.

“It’s not our nature to bribe journalists and editors. We know that most of them are professionals and wouldn’t accept it,” he said.

He explained that the money is instead meant to facilitate meetings the Media Centre holds with reporters and editors. “We will be engaging editors and reporters countrywide, and that engagement might require us to meet them in one place, buy them lunch and even refund their transport fare,” he said, adding that most journalists upcountry, especially those working with radios, are poorly remunerated.

Other groups to be “facilitated” include some 50 people to be paid Shs 10 million for their “interventions on Twitter, Facebook and various news programmes”.

Govt not accused

The Uganda Media Centre was established in September 2005 by the government to manage government-media relations. Many will wonder why the government would need such an aggressive and expensive media campaign to “clear the air” about matters in the oil sector.

In unrelated remarks made earlier, Soroti municipality MP, Mike Mukula, a former minister, argued that it is not the NRM party, or the government, that are accused of impropriety in the oil sector, but rather individuals.

“When individuals are accused, it doesn’t become a party or government matter. Uganda is bigger than the individuals,” Mukula said.

But Opolot, echoing President Museveni’s view that the documents upon which the ministers were linked to oil related bribery are forged, insisted that there is need to accurately inform Ugandans about the ongoing oil debate in Parliament.

He said the campaign will cover media houses countrywide. Asked about the campaign’s duration, Opolot said, being part and parcel of the Media Centre-government communication strategy, it’s going to be “ongoing.”

Opolot further said he was not informed whether the budget had been approved, although our sources indicated that the President’s Office had okayed it with some amendments. According to these sources, the Media Centre had initially asked for Shs 113 million per week, but only Shs 67 million was approved.


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