On 29th December 2019, Uganda’s most prominent name in the world of film Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine spent a fruitful afternoon at the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) offices in Bugolobi, giving a pep talk to creative artists. He met more than 150 artists that day. For good measure, Ntare used the occasion to announce a short film competition whose cash prize has since grown from US$1,000 (Shs 3.5m) to 5,000 (17.5m).
Exactly one month earlier, UCC had staged perhaps its most successful Uganda Film Festival (UFF) to date, with film entries, cinema-goers and capacity building workshop trainees at a record high, and sponsorship packages and winners’ prizes the biggest ever.
These two unrelated events targeting creative artists within 30 days of each other represent a microcosm of UCC’s enthusiasm for the creative arts industry in general, ever since the Commission assumed statutory stewardship of the sector, having merged with the Broadcasting Council in line with the Uganda Communications Act 2013.
Upon taking on the creative arts industry under this law, UCC set about creating an enabling environment, including developing standards, to facilitate the growth and development of the sector.
From engaging the stakeholders, the Commission got familiar with the challenges standing in the way of this vision. First, the industry players were disjointed and not pulling in the same direction. The Commission played a supporting role in the creation of the Uganda Film Council to address this gap, but some players did not embrace it.
Then, the Commission learnt that locally generated audio-visual content was finding it hard to compete with foreign content on local television. The Commission sought to address this by introducing a minimum requirement of 70% local content on Free to Air television and 20% local content on Pay TV platforms.
As UCC pushed for more local content, broadcasting operators complained that most of the home-grown audio-visual content they were being urged to use was of poor quality. After engaging with stakeholders, UCC came up with the Uganda Film Festival idea in a bid to improve content and energise the industry. Six years later, both local and foreign judges have reported tremendous improvement in content quality over the last couple of years.
However, it takes not just talent but also good money to produce good quality content. Following years of discussions with relevant Government organs and partners, a Content Fund was recently agreed on. This fund will support creative artists who have great ideas but lack the necessary funding to turn them into reality.
Alongside other stakeholders, UCC has made an effort to address gaps in the existing institutional and regulatory frameworks that support creative industries in terms of fiscal policies, intellectual property and investment promotion.
The Commission has also joined partners such as Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB), National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and Uganda Performing Right Society (UPRS) in the fight against piracy and unlicensed operators so that creative artists can earn from their copyright loyalties.
However, such interventions can only make a difference if the industry is organised and streamlined. In their reaction to the recently passed regulations on the creative arts industry, some artists have given an impression that they do not entertain any sort of Government control or regulation. A creative arts industry in a state of laissez-faire should never be an option. Think about any sports discipline you enjoy, for instance, and imagine it without the strict rules and regulations!
That is the spirit behind the Stage Play and Public Entertainment Rules of 2019 as well as the Film, Documentaries and Commercial Still Photography Regulations, which set standards for audio-visual content.
These regulations were enacted to give effect to the Stage Plays and Public Entertainment Act, which was previously under the ambit of the Broadcasting Council.
With the merger of UCC and the Broadcasting Council in 2013, UCC inherited the responsibility to implement the provisions of this law as spelt out in Section 94 of the Uganda Communications Act 2013.
The regulations went through the due legislative process, which included stakeholder consultations. UCC couldn’t have influenced the consultation process in Parliament or the timing as it has no control over the legislative process.
However, whatever input UCC made in the regulations was well informed and in good faith. The goal was, and still is, to develop and not to destroy the industry as some critics have wildly claimed. Who would destroy an industry they have laboured so much to build?
Was the industry consulted? The Commission’s modus operandi has always been stakeholder consultation first, and this case was not different. It is understandable that some stakeholders didn’t engage fully during the consultation process, probably thinking that the process would never come to fruition, but here we are.
That aside, the requirement to obtain permits for filming locations, public exhibition and public entertainment is about protecting the public from offensive content as well as ensuring the safety of participants and venues. It is not about limiting creativity. The requirement is hardly extraordinary either, as some critics have suggested.
These are standard requirements in many countries, especially those with vibrant creative industries that we admire and aspire to emulate, including Kenya. According to Section 4 of Kenya’s Stage Plays Act 2012, “No film shall be made within Kenya for public exhibition or sale either within or outside Kenya except under and in accordance with the terms and conditions of a filming license…”
Section 4(2) goes further: “Where any film is made in contravention of the provisions of sub-section (1) of this section, the producer, proprietor, promoter and photographer thereof, and every other person engaged in the making of the film, shall each be guilty of an offence.”
In the end, Government through UCC has a duty, not only to facilitate the growth of the creative industry but also to protect consumers (the public) from bogus, inappropriate or harmful content.
For the industry to scale the heights of countries whose content we admire, there must be order in the “ecosystem”, which will enable local players to tap into the skills of professionals and the support of Government. If we cherish this, then we must acknowledge that international productions only work in enabling environments with clear rules, regulations and structures.
Besides, having learnt from our experience with UFF, the Commission has approached big companies in the country, to interest them in supporting the creative industry. Their feedback has shown that while they are inclined to join the cause, they are concerned about what they see as a disorganised sector.
The Government too works in a very structured way. For instance, how will a production house be able to benefit from the Content Fund unless they are compliant with the existing regulatory regime?
The vision of the Commission is to foster the growth of a viable film industry with knock-on effects on job creation and promotion and preservation of the diverse Ugandan cultures and heritage.
The results to date have been promising. There is a notable increase in local content production, improved content quality, and greater exposure of local creative artists to local and international markets.
During the last six years, more than 106 films have been submitted to international film festivals while 2,135 have been submitted through UFF.
Two thousand six hundred sixty-one filmmakers (2,661) have had their skills horned and upgraded by local and international film trainers through UCC’s capacity building programmes geared towards talent development in various aspects of film production.
UCC has helped to transform the industry from one that was dominated by foreign content six years ago to one where local content on free to air stations has increased from 30% in 2018 to 50% by the end of 2019 on average. In fact, some TV stations already boast of 100% local content, including a pay-TV channel.
To further support the industry, UCC in partnership with local cinemas in Kampala have screened at least 827 local films, which have been watched by more than 12,000 people. In addition, UCC has also popularised films in local communities through open mobile screenings.
Admittedly, there is much more to do to make the industry realise its potential, including professionalising it, as the regulations seek to do.
As a regulator, it is not unusual that some stakeholders will disagree with you from time to time. The makers of the Uganda Communications Act 2013 foresaw this and hence provided for the Communication Tribunal for aggrieved stakeholders to seek redress. Unfortunately, for reasons beyond UCC, the Tribunal is yet to be operationalised. That leaves the courts of law as an alternative redress mechanism.
It is, however, UCC’s sincere belief that constructive engagement is the best way forward. The Commission is committed to that as a meeting of minds is in the best interest of the industry.