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In Uganda, Critics Concerned About Web and Media-Only Election Campaigning

FILE - Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni addresses supporters in Kampala, Feb. 16, 2016. Controversial new rules ban mass gatherings during campaigning for the 2021 general election.

Uganda's 2021 election candidates will have to campaign online and through the media to reach voters as part of new rules to stem the spread of COVID-19. Uganda's electoral commission banned mass gatherings during campaigning, which critics say will disadvantage opposition parties and voters, and may be unconstitutional.

Simon Byamukama, chairman of the electoral commission, says his team will meet with the minister of information, the Media Council and the Uganda Communications Commission about the guidelines.

"We are going to take the matter up with security officers, RDCs, government at large and make sure that these measures are effected without any hindrance," he said.

The RDCs, or resident district commissioners, are representatives of President Yoweri Museveni stationed in every district. The RDCs, along with the police, have been known to deny members of the opposition access to the media – which has Uganda election observers worried.

Question of access

Sarah Birete, associate director of the Center for Constitutional Governance, a Ugandan NGO, says the new campaign rules put older and rural voters – who are less likely to be online or have access to electronic media – at a disadvantage during an election campaign.

"So, what happens to a rural voter that does not have access to radio, does not have access to TV or internet?" she said. "And what happens to the usual characteristics of an election where people enjoy exchange of information, exchange of ideas and voters are required to make informed decisions?"

Asuman Basalirwa, chairman of the Inter-party Organization for Dialogue that looks to bring together all political parties in the country, says the new regulations may run afoul of the constitution.

"We want to task them to explain how they are going to implement the regulations without necessarily amending the electoral laws," Basalirwa said. "In our constitution, there's nothing like digitalized election. So, either we have the election the normal way or we don't have the election."

Defending the change

However, the electoral commission says it is following guidelines set up by the Ministry of Health to ensure the safety of Ugandans, as the current law does not allow for a postponement or extension of elections to accommodate a normal electoral process.

Uganda currently has 724 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and no reported deaths from the disease.

Polling is to take place between January 10 and February 8 of next year, as the country holds local, parliamentary and presidential elections.

Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, is expected to have more than 20 challengers.

In past elections, state media has covered Museveni and members of the ruling National Resistance Movement to the near-exclusion of other candidates.

According to the Uganda Communications Commission, about 18 million Ugandans have access to the internet. However, Birete notes that many of those are teenagers, who are not eligible to vote.