COVID-19 & THE MONEY.Is the media interrogating the classified vote?

I was invited as one of the speakers to discuss a webinar topic titled ‘Covid-19 and the Money:  Is the Media Watching?’ 

 This paper attempts to address this subject. 

I must however provide a context. Covid-19 struck at the time legacy media was facing an existential threat as print circulation and appointment broadcast viewership continue to fall. Advertising, which sustains the pay cheque of journalists continues to shrink. Cheaper cyber-space advertising is now consuming the bigger advertising revenues as the sting of corporate tyranny cherry-picks ‘friendly’ and public relations infested-media to advertise with.

Covid-19 brought life to a shuddering halt in Uganda and upended the media industry. It became the death knell of some struggling newspapers and radios in the country. 

Media houses slashed salaries and curtailed their operations. Lockdown measures restricted movement and journalists had to adopt unconventional methods to report stories through cyberspace.

This limited the ability to interact with sources and much of what was reported during this spell was the officialdom narrative. Journalism could no longer make a jurisdictional claim of reporting fairly, objectively, accurately and with depth. 

The niche of investigative journalism and long-form explanatory reporting were pushed to the backburners as cash-strapped newsrooms could barely operate beyond the confines of Kampala.

Amongst the major stories that were not adequately interrogated include the shs 400bn supplementary budget to purchase military equipment under classified expenditure.

Thomas Amlie a former US congressman provides a definition of classified budgets known in American lexicon as black budgets. To him, there are three reasons for classified budget expenditures, which are explained: “One you are doing something that should genuinely be secret… two, you are doing something so damn stupid that you don’t want anyone to know about it. And three, you want to rip the moneybag open and get out a shovel, because there is no accountability whatsoever”.

It is estimated that in the Financial Year 2016/17, total classified expenditure accounted for only shs 441 billion but has now risen to shs 2.5 trillion representing an extraordinary increment of 488% over a period of 4 years. A combination of classified figures in the budget for Financial Year 2019/20 with other supplementary budget approvals brings the total classified expenditure and assets to 3.6 trillion shillings for FY 2019/20 alone.

 Specifically, the Ministry of Defence has an Equipment Project whose budget has had a huge increment from Shs469.25b in 2018/2029 to Shs1.976T in FY20l9/20 and this will run on for the next 5 years 2019/20 – 2023/24 will cumulatively cost a total of Shs6T.

According to a research paper titled: “Classified expenditure in Uganda: A look into faceless bureaucracy and Public Spending” authored by Prosper Mubangizi, Uganda’s classified expenditure could be anchored on the hostile Great Lakes region. Mubangizi cites the late Prof Dan Mudoola’s postulation in in regard to why Uganda requires a big Defence expenditure. 

Mudoola made a plausible argument that Uganda needed “to build a cordon of sanitaire around Uganda’s borders and at the same time to contain internal fluid situations”. 

This debate elicits ambivalence. Whereas some actors in the West view president Museveni as the anchorman of stability in the volatile Great-Lakes, others accuse him of aggression and playing the brinkmanship card in the region.

Journalists must therefore ask a compelling question: For instance, was the classified expenditure to purchase military equipment warranted as Ugandans faced an existential threat from the Covid-19 pandemic? 

Was there an enemy state in the troubled region that was planning to attack Uganda’s territory? 

International law provides the legal framework for Uganda to defend its self against acts of aggression from a neighbouring state. For the probing journalists, it is quite unlikely that Uganda could be attacked by a neighbouring state in the throes of a Covid pandemic.

Is the military equipment to be purchased for the purpose of suppressing internal strife or violence? 

These are some of the questions curious journalists ought to ask. 

The Public Finance Management Act provides for a legal framework to enforce transparency and accountability in regard to classified expenditure. But Parliament, which is mandated to enforce accountability has shirked this responsibility and is complicit in regard to the misuse of funds.

In April, MPs doled out 10bn shs to themselves in a supplementary budget under the pretext of combating Covid-19 in their constituencies. Can MPs competently audit classified budgets when they are engaging in dubious payments?

Journalists should be keen to probe classified expenditure as the 2021 general election is barely months away. Such classified votes should raise redflags in newsrooms and compel journalists to trace the details of such expenditures. 

It may not be easy to find the smoking gun that such monies could be spent on renting support during campaigns or buying political adversaries. 

Developing an aptitude for investigative reporting requires resilience, the skill and work rate of a sleuth and journalistic enterprise. 

It starts by establishing anecdotal leads and being able to build them into cogent evidence.