Praising the govt is a dirty job, but it pays wellBy FREDERICK GOLOOBA-MUTEBI | Monday, November 28 2011 at 09:52
In the Middle East and South Asia, they call it baksheesh. Kenyans call it kitu kidogo (something small). In Uganda we call it many names, but chai (tea) is one of the most used. The straightforward term in English is “bribe.”
In Uganda, as in a number of countries where very few things are for free, bribe-giving and bribe-taking are routine. So routine are they that, except where politicians and public figures are involved — which usually means that the sums of money changing hands are astronomical and almost always at the expense of the taxpayer — they are taken for granted. In other words, what scholars who study the phenomenon call “everyday corruption” is part of Ugandans’ life experience.
Even the government, which under normal circumstances should spend time and money fighting the vice, does a fair amount to facilitate it. Visit Uganda in the heat of election campaigns and you will witness candidates taking advantage of their positions in government to gain access to cash and goods that they proceed to distribute to members of the public waiting to grab what they can while they can.
Those doing the giving will always claim they are not buying votes or corrupting voters, but only helping the government keep outstanding promises. New money may even be appropriated from the national coffers to aid the process.
In urban areas, such manoeuvres invite condemnation that, nonetheless, dissipates quickly as people return their attention to personal concerns such as how to make ends meet on shoestring incomes. In rural areas they tend to go unnoticed, thanks to lack of radio sets and the limited reach of newspapers.
The cumulative effect of short-lived anger in the towns and information blackout in the villages is to encourage those who misappropriate and squander public resources to carry on doing so with impunity.
There is no better illustration of this than the latest source of outrage to emerge out of the Uganda government’s inner sanctums. The head of its propaganda project, otherwise known as the Uganda Media Centre, has apparently authored a proposal that, if approved, and there are reports that it has been, would see the government spend a whole Ush3.2 billion ($1.2 million) on sprucing up its badly tainted image.
Of course no government wants to have a bad name. Many spend large amounts of money paying public-relations firms to embellish their images by lying to the world about them. So in principle there is nothing particularly unusual about the government of Uganda, the subject of much bad publicity at home and abroad, trying to find a way of telling tall tales about itself in a bid to appear cleaner than it really is.
What has shocked and angered members of the public is the way the Media Centre proposes to go about the task. Essentially, the grand plan consists of turning the astronomical amount of money its boss has asked for into a slush fund from which to draw and dispense a wide assortment of odd payments and pay-offs.
Potential target recipients include a frontline of specified numbers and categories of journalists working for major print and electronic media houses across the country. And then there is the second line of carefully chosen Members of Parliament whose role will be to “interact” with the mercenary journalists and “provide region-specific information,” and “media activists” whose role will be to bombard conventional media as well as new (social) media with letters and “interventions.”
If one were to put the outrage aside for a moment, the plans raise several questions not only about the Media Centre itself, but also about the government’s overall PR strategy, if at all there is one. Three things come to mind immediately:
First, that the Media Centre was established in 2005 to inject some coherence into a government PR machine that at the time was in utter disarray, leaving hardly anyone able to tell who spoke and who did not speak officially for the government, or even who was really in charge of its relations with the media.
The Centre started off robustly, at one point employing armies of young people to argue the government’s corner in newspapers. And then they disappeared.
Did they lose the faith, or did newspapers pull the plug? Whatever the answer may be, it raises questions about what the envisaged “media activists” can achieve.
Second, that the much-needed coherence in the way the government communicates did not materialise.
Today, as in 2005 and before, the chaos is evident in the cacophony of voices one hears claiming to speak for the government. It is therefore not clear what value the further multiplication of voices, with frequent contradictions, will add.
Third, anyone with a modicum of common sense and what some call “native intelligence” would easily figure out that ultimately a good image is the product of good deeds. Either the government has never recruited people of this sort, or they simply stopped thinking in simple commonsense terms once they got in.
Clearly, the Media Centre people have a difficult and unenviable task: It cannot be easy cleaning up after a government determined to keep soiling itself and its surroundings. Even a large pot of chai for would-be image-makers can’t do the trick.
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