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How one community radio is raising and shaping political awareness in Uganda

By Caroline Ariba

Voice of Kigezi, a radio station based in the western Uganda district of Kabale is no stranger to threats. This ironically is a good thing. It means the journalists are doing their job. Often times, most of the threats are from politicians who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

In 2018 for example, the radio station unearthed a Shs40million (about $10,000) embezzlement scandal that put the district leadership in the spotlight.

Two years down the road, another scandal was disinterred: Some dubious people had quietly sold off a yard that belonged to the district. Only recently, the radio also reported an over-priced shoddy job at a local health center in Kabale. In ensuring their fact-checking process is up to date, Voice of Kigezi has set the bar high in the six districts of the sub-region where it has significant reach.

With a frequency beyond the Kigezi area, spilling into parts of neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the station commands a known listenership of over 3million people.

“We haven’t even begun to measure the online following yet,” station manager, Andrew Agaba boasts. A quick look at the station’s online grip shows an active social media presence with Facebook taking the lion’s share. Away from the official pages, the radio’s listeners also started a fans-page on Facebook to continue the discussions and engagement. Together with the official page, the following on Facebook alone is nearly 80,000.

This, one could argue is because Voice of Kigezi is the epicenter of civic rights awareness and a meeting place for the community and their leaders in the sub-region. Indeed, the radio has hosted an endless number of political leaders, including the President.

Currently, it has four major talk shows that run for two hours each and boast of an engaging audience throughout.

Amaateka (laws), which runs on Saturday between 2-4pm, educates the public on rights, responsibilities, and the law. “We hold dialogues with human rights lawyers, police and generally those in position to better explain the law,” the station’s Chief Editor, Alex Byakatonda, explains.

“Importantly though, we encourage the listeners to call in with as many inquiries as possible.” The other shows are; Orukiiko (a current affairs dialogue), Tigabagomwe (knowledge on various topics is shared), and Enkubiito (an agricultural show that also highlights the grievances of the farmers). The shows run over the weekend and each has just as big a listenership.

“These shows are all popular, but the most listened to is Orukiiko and Amateeka with about 70% of our listenership,” Byakatonda says.

Enid Kwikiriza, a vegetable trader and resident of Mwanjari Ward in Kabale town says her favorite programme is Amateeka. “I don’t think I would have been able to know things about the law if I didn’t listen to that programme. I mean, who would have taught me?” she asks. “Through that programme, I learned that I can report some of these corrupt police officers who are always harassing us for money.”

Kwikiriza says that over the years, she has grown to love the Orukiiko show as well because it shows the good and bad leaders. “It is now campaign season, some of us who never have time to attend rallies can tune in and listen to the candidates debating,” she says. “The good thing about this radio station is that it hosts all kinds of leaders: From local to national, even the leaders from our small wards,” notes Kwikiriza.

Byakatonda explains that the shows are deliberately designed to include everyone in the discussion. “Elders, opinion leaders, community leaders, the ordinary people, are all part of the conversation; we ensure that no one is left behind.”

Because of this inclusive approach, a big part of the programming is in Rukiga, which is the major language used in the region, with a little English for guests who can’t speak the dialect. This decision was made at the inception of the radio station back in January 2000.

Role of radio 

Indeed, radio plays an important role in Uganda and Africa at large. It is a known tool in encouraging civic engagement in communities. Research by Dr Yusuf Kalyango, a Ugandan media academic dubbed, Political News Use and Democratic Support: A Study of Uganda’s Radio Impact, examines the role of radio during the democratization process in Uganda. It further tests whether the use of political news and information on the radio in Uganda leads to support for democracy, accounting for the public interest in politics. “Radio is the most accessed medium for current affairs in Africa, and remarkably so in Uganda,” he states in the end. “Public opinion survey data show considerable use of radio for political information, but no direct influence on support for democracy.”

Dr Kalyango argues that greater use of radio to get political news is strongly related to measures of political interest; which is also a moderating variable to democratic support.

In Uganda, in as much of Africa, radio is the most popular medium of accessing information. (Photos by Innocent Amanyire)  

Prepping for the 2021 election 

“Our newsroom is independent,” Byakatonda boasts. He adds that to ensure an incorruptible newsroom during the electioneering period, they will only run stories that are commissioned during newsroom meetings. “We will avoid sending the same reporter twice to interview a politician, let alone be part of their rallies, (should rallies be allowed),” he explains. The journalists are required to inform the editors of any conflicts of interest, and or relationships with politicians that might exist before interviews.

“In preparation for the upcoming election, we now have an expert trainer come in every Thursday to talk to our journalists about the electoral process,” Byakatonda further notes. “We also extended the training to the community to enable citizen journalism during this election time.” Should stories that need a specific skillset emerge through the citizen journalists, they will send out the station journalists to the field to have more in-depth coverage of the issue.

As noted before, in doing their job, Voice of Kigezi has run into trouble with local leaders and police. “Once we had the Resident District Commissioner put us off the air because of hosting former presidential candidate, Dr Kizza Besigye,” recalls the station editor. They were told that the guest had been barred from speaking to the public and the radio stations hosting him were doing so illegally.

But despite challenges like these, Voice of Kigezi has ensured that it continues to appeal to the wider community. One way it has done this is by making local content a top priority.

“Before we talk national politics, we ensure that our listeners have a grasp of their local politics and role therein,” says Byakatonda, adding that 40 % of the news stories carried by the radio station are local content, and the rest is news based on national and international events.

A big part of the international content is from the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme, which is run twice every day and also from the Voice of America. Because of this, communities that live across neighbouring Rwanda, where the BBC is banned are also able to keep up with developments happening around the globe. “To prove that our coverage has a far reach, we have callers from outside Uganda discussing what they might have heard on our radio,” Byakatonda says.

Impact

This wide reach and impact have turned the station into a brand. It doesn’t come as a surprise therefore that the electorate has voted into political office journalists from Voice of Kigezi–from local councilors, committee chairpersons to the national parliament.

For instance, before becoming the District Chairperson, Patrick Besigye Kaihwa was a journalist with Voice of Kigezi. Like Kaihwa, Ronah Rita Ninsiima was previously a journalist at the same station. She is known for unseating the then Minister of Agriculture, Hope Mwesigye. During her time at the station, the assertive Ninsiima co-hosted a programme that focused on the plight of the rural poor and therefore understood their needs.

In a recent media interview, she said: “I would not stop at just reading the news and people’s problems, I would go ahead to talk about them during the programme. But I realised this was not enough.” What started as a job at the radio for the MP, birthed the need to also find a solution to the problem, hence contesting for the parliamentary seat.

Despite some of the district’s political leaders having emerged from within the radio station, its managers insist they maintain a rule on impartiality.

“We are committed to playing the watchdog role; ensuring that elected officials, even if formerly our journalists are being transparent and accountable to the electorate,” the station manager notes. “We also make sure that the electorate knows it is their right to demand this

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