WAKISO, UGANDA — On Nov. 18, 2020, Mwambazi Kibirige held his phone as he watched an online outlet called Ghetto TV. On his device, he saw security forces arresting Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, a member of Parliament and a leading opposition candidate for president better known as Bobi Wine.
Twenty minutes later, Kibirige heard that protests had flared throughout Uganda.
Ghetto TV is one of more than a dozen online television outlets that are reshaping how Ugandans consume news by broadcasting events — such as live arrests of opposition politicians and the ensuing protests — that mainstream media don’t often cover.
The digital broadcasters’ growing influence shows the challenges faced by countries that seek to corral online media in an era when all one needs to launch a TV channel is access to the internet.
The outlets have outraged the government, which has accused them of embracing hate messages and inciting violence, including the nationwide protests that followed Kyagulanyi’s arrest in November, which resulted in scores of arrests and injuries. Fifty-four people died.
The channels broadcast via YouTube. This provoked the Uganda Communications Commission to ask Google — which owns the internet video behemoth — to ban 14 of them. Google declined.
“It was how government handled the opposition that caused anarchy,” says Ivan Sempala Kigozi, legal head of Unwanted Witness, a civil society organization that supports human rights activists who use online platforms.
New online outlets have become an increasingly popular vehicle for the political opposition, Kigozi says. The organization is trying to count these online channels, and is studying their impact.
Online TV emerged in Uganda in August 2017, after Kyagulanyi was arrested while seeking a parliamentary seat in a special election. At least two online stations captured his arrest live.
“I was hooked,” Kibirige says.
No one knows how many Ugandans watch online TV, but Ghetto TV has a Facebook following of about 27,000 and roughly 24,000 YouTube subscribers.
Another outlet, Olujuliro TV, boasts 12,800 members and about 2,400 subscribers on those same social media networks.
The Communications Commission, which didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment, regulates the country’s traditional stations. Unlike their analog counterparts, online outlets often air brassier, more controversial content, such as live coverage of last November’s protests, which featured armed people, some in uniforms, beating and shooting protesters and others.
“There has been a trust issue with mainstream media,” says Peter Mwesige, director of the African Centre for Media Excellence, a journalism training center in Kampala, the capital. “They are not bold enough and are scared to antagonize the government.”
During election week in January, the government shut down Uganda’s internet, used by at least 18.9 million subscribers. And government supporters hailed the move.
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“They called upon people to protest, spreading hate messages against the government and those that support it,” says Asburg Kato, a popular blogger, referring to online TV outlets.
Viewers vouch for their impact. Nabukenya Margret, a 26-year-old homemaker, was watching Map Mediya TV last November on a friend’s smartphone when she recalls a reporter saying, “People in other parts of the country are protesting. What is happening where you are now? Wake up and do something about it.”
Nabukenya and her friend rushed out and joined protesters who burned old car tires and chanted. They implored the government to free Kyagulanyi.
Broadcasting for Ghetto TV can be a challenge. In late December, while on Kyagulanyi’s campaign trail, Ghetto TV reporter Ashraf Kasirye was injured after police shot him in the head, he says.
National police spokesperson Fred Enanga says that as officers tried to quell violence by Kyagulanyi’s supporters, Kasirye was struck near his left eye by a tear gas canister.
In a text exchange, Kasirye says his injury required brain surgery, and that he still can’t recall many words and names. He is supposed to have another operation soon and expects to be out of work for at least a year. Medication alone has cost 45 million Ugandan shillings (about $12,700), he says.
“I thank God I am alive,” Kasirye says.
Some online media outlets are run by Ugandans in the diaspora. This makes it hard for the government to censor them, says Mwesige, from the journalism training center. But he argues that Uganda’s online TV audience remains too small to impact social change.
He also worries that the channels may fuel political violence. “We have to be mindful of what is being broadcast,” Mwesige says. “Mainstream media has a responsibility to disband misinformation, unlike online media.”
Elections have passed, but politics still dominate the outlets. One recent day, Ghetto TV broadcast a report on Kyagulanyi’s bulletproof car. Another segment focused on opposition politicians and supporters in jail. Both segments lasted more than 30 minutes.
Kibirige says he watches Ghetto TV and other online media at least an hour a day. The businessman even tunes in when he is traveling.
He says he never views the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, the state-run network, but at times does watch mainstream media — just not for political news. He thinks they’re biased against the opposition.
He recalls that during election week, he turned to mainstream outlets only because of the internet blackout. Then, when it was lifted, he returned to online TV.
“I went back to the only source that gives me full detail,” he says.
Nakisanze Segawa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda. She specializes in reporting on issues of health and human rights.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.