Uganda: Online News and Twitter Coverage of the 2016 Election

Uganda: Online News and Twitter Coverage of the 2016 Election - Media

Workers register voters for upcoming elections in Kampala's Electoral Commission office.

ARTICLE 19 has partnered with the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, part of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, to analyse the media coverage of specific human rights issues in the run-up to the 2016 Ugandan elections. This focus and timeframe provided an adequate framework to verify whether the media produced a fair and complete coverage of all the diverse viewpoints that were at play during the electoral campaign. 

The research demonstrates that the incumbent candidate Yoweri Museveni and his party the National Resistance Movement (NRM) largely dominated the media space. In a detailed case-study of the day before the polling day, the research also shows that the government-controlled New Vision has been supportive of President Museveni, while another newspaper, Daily Monitor, covered all major candidates in a more critical perspective.

This work is part of ARTICLE 19’s evidence-based advocacy in order to promote and protect media freedom, independence and the public interest in an increasingly globalised, digitised and converged media landscape worldwide. While this is a contribution to other empirical research that relate the monitoring of media content with an analysis of public advertising and other means of public funding of the media, it is also hoped that the findings and conclusions of this report will serve to inform media reforms in Uganda, especially on the need for fairness in coverage of important political issues.

Executive Summary

Online news coverage

  • Incumbent president Yoweri Museveni was mentioned in by far the most online articles – 1,597 – published by the sampled news outlets. The next most covered candidate – Kizza Besigye – featured in 1,029 articles, while Amama Mbabazi featured in 558 articles. The five other candidates each appeared in fewer than 200 articles across the month of February.
  • This advantage in coverage for Museveni was more pronounced before polling day than after. He featured in 59 articles on average per day before polling day and 48 afterwards. Besigye rose from 32 articles per day to 37 per day after the election.
  • The NRM also had an advantage over rivals in terms of volume of coverage – it appeared in 1,303 articles, verus the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC)’s 998. The TDA-Go Forward movement was in a distant third place with 256 articles.
  • Museveni was the most featured candidate in all five outlets selected for in-depth analysis of candidate coverage. These included newspaper websites (New Vision, Daily Monitor and The Observer) and online-only sites (The Insider and ChimpReports).

Policy issue agendas in online news

  • The campaign coverage tended to focus on issues of democratic legitimacy, fairness, and security. The most frequently covered policy issues during the campaign were: Corruption (1,326 articles mentioned this issue); Security (1,123); Justice (1,008) and Democracy (915).
  • Concerns about corruption and democracy rose significantly after the election. Prior to polling day, Security was the most prevalent policy issue, measured by the number of articles in which it was referenced at least once. After polling day, however, there was a substantial decrease in the number of articles mentioning security-related issues.
  • Corruption was the most common issue across all outlets, but security, justice and democracy always featured prominently.

Sources in online news coverage

  • NRM spokespeople featured most often in coverage of the campaign, being mentioned or quoted in 211 articles. FDC spokespeople were featured in 51 articles.
  • In all eight sampled publications, spokespeople affiliated with the NRM were most common.

The campaign on Twitter

  • Most candidates’ Twitter profiles were relatively restrained during the campaign, with the exception of Abed Bwanika’s, which published 928 tweets in the month of February. Though many of these were retweets, there was still a contrast in how candidates communicated on the platform.
  • The candidates tended not to mention their opponents. Criticism was rare. This also extended to party-affiliated profiles.
  • Across all sampled Twitter profiles, many of the features of online news coverage were present: Museveni gathered the most mentions, with Besigye in second place;  the NMA was by far the most mentioned party; corruption, security, justice and democracy were the most common policy issues mentioned (though corruption significantly less so, in relative terms).
  • The government’s attempted election day shut-down of social media platforms was not as successful on Twitter – polling day saw the second-highest number of tweets (5,534) by sampled profiles, second only to the day of the presidential debate on 13 February.

Case studies

  • The day of the second presidential debate was dominated by speculation about whether or not Museveni would appear. This was the key issue on the majority of online news coverage and on Twitter. On the day after the debate, very little coverage focused on the debate itself.
  • Twitter coverage of the debate was dominated by the #UGDebate16 hashtag – most profiles, especially those of media outlets, used this as part of live coverage and updates of the debate as it happened. Criticism by official party or candidate profiles of opponents was rare, though party-affiliated accounts did occasionally criticise opponents directly, and more often republished critical tweets from other users outside the sample.
  • On the day before polling day (17 February), the conversation on Twitter among parties and candidates was respectful and usually congenial. Some candidates published messages of goodwill to others. Party-affiliated accounts made extensive use of hashtags to rally support, and retweeted many messages of support.
  • The Twitter profiles of media outlets generally refrained from covering candidates and parties on 17 February. Of 1,045 tweets in total, Museveni was mentioned in 40, and Besigye in 42. The FDC appeared in 25 tweets by media outlets, and the NRM in 16. The majority of media twitter activity was information-oriented, and made extensive use of the #UgandaDecides hashtag.
  • Online news coverage on 17 February gave almost equal prominence to Museveni and Besigye (mentioned in 67 articles and 63 articles respectively), and the NRM and FDC also received almost equal coverage (45 and 46 articles).
  • The policy agenda across all sampled outlets on 17 February was little different from that of the campaign as a whole. Corruption was the top issue, mentioned in 88 articles.
  • An in-depth comparison of New Vision and Daily Monitor shows the difference in both publications’ coverage on 17 February. New Vision published several comment pieces that were broadly or explicitly supportive of Museveni. Two of these comment articles also contained direct criticism of Besigye. Daily Monitor published more articles that were factual news reports, and had a closer balance of articles focusing on Museveni, Besigye, and to a lesser extent Mbabazi. Though the Monitor contained two comment pieces showing some degree of support for Besigye, it published articles that contained criticism of all major candidates.
  • Other publications (The Observer, Red Pepper, The Independent, The Investigator, The Insider and ChimpReports) published little in the way of commentary on the day before polling day. Criticism and support for Museveni and Besigye tended to come in the form of partisan quotes from officials or supporters of their respective parties. None of these publications was uniformly partisan in their coverage of presidential candidates; each featured criticism or support for both of the main candidates, though to varying degrees.
  • In the immediate aftermath of polling day –19 and 20 February – coverage continued to focus on Museveni and Besigye and their respective parties, and was largely preoccupied with issues of the validity of the election process, and public order and security (including the arrest of Besigye and affiliated party officials. There was a lack of clarity and consensus about these issues.
  • Coverage post-election was almost entirely absent of quotes from presidential candidates, and featured very little commentary. Partisan support or criticism of the different candidates and their parties was relatively rare.

You can read the report in full here.