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The role of the media in election season

22.12.2018
AFRIC Editorial Article.
The media plays a critical role in the functioning of every democracy and a democratic election would never be possible without the media. A free and fair election is not only about the freedom to vote and the knowledge of how to cast a vote, but also about a participatory process where voters engage in public debate and have adequate information about parties, policies, candidates and the election process itself in order to make informed choices. Therefore, the media acts a conduit but also as a watchdog to ensure democratic elections and transparency.

Traditionally, when referring to the media it was understood that it was in reference to the printed press, television and radio. With the advent of technology and the internet the definition has definitely become broader. It now includes new media, citizen journalism and online journalism. New media consists of the Internet, mobile phones, social media networks such as blogs and micro-blogs, social networking websites, video-sharing sites, and others.

AN UNFETTERED ACCESS TO INFORMATION

The media is everywhere around us and with new media, information is always on the tip of the fingers. Blogging, vlogging and the use of social media have added new dimensions on how information is shared among people. Media diversity and its long tentacles suggests that we do live in a global information society. But access to information, more so in Africa differs enormously because of the difference in the running of governments and what they allow and/or disprove for citizens to access.

A number of factors define media landscapes of different countries across the continent some of which include: media literacy, access to electricity, wealth, geographic location, and culture. Another aspect is wealth and prosperity. This will undoubtedly affect issues of ownership and the reach the media has. For instance, in an area where there’s little appetite for advertising, there’s often a lack of independent media houses. The reality is that these independent media would therefore be concentrated in urban areas and neglect the rural part of the country.

In Africa and some parts of sub-Saharan Africa there are still areas where only national, state or government-run media is available in rural areas and access to the internet or new media is nonexistent. The term ‘digital divide’ has been coined to refer to inequalities between populations in terms of access to new media.

THE ROLES PLAYED BY MEDIA DURING ELECTIONS

The media’s functions during elections season is normally narrowed downed to its watchdog role. To report on the successes and failures of candidates, governments, and electoral management bodies, to report on how they have been performing and assist in holding them accountable.

But there’s a bigger mandate that the media assumes during the transitioning of power. The media has an inherent responsibility to educate voters on how to exercise their democratic rights, to report correctly on the developments surrounding the election campaigns of different political parties. The media must also ensure equal representation of political parties and their candidates to communicate their message to the public or engage in debates with their counterparts. It must also provide the platform for the general public to be able to communicate their concerns, opinions, needs and views to the political parties/candidates, electoral management and the government.

Another sacrosanct role that the media is expected to play is thoroughly scrutinize the electoral process itself including the electoral management in order to ensure that the process is fair, efficient thus giving an update regularly on the results and monitoring the vote counting process. It is also incumbent that the media in a democratic setup, provides the public with correct information that avoids inflammatory, denigrating language and fake news so as to prevent election-related violence.

MEDIA SAFETY

To ensure that the democratic process proceed unhindered, it is paramount to ensure the safety of the media personnel and their property. Journalists appear to be easy targets across the spectrum, from the public right up to politicians. But the attack on the media does a lot more harm than anticipated because where the media acts as a mouthpiece, silencing the media means silencing the public. The attack on journalists has a ripple effect throughout the entire media community.

Violence directed at journalists and media can take many forms, including arrests, beatings, rape, and murder. Violence and manipulation also come in the form of attacks against family members, arson or destruction of offices or equipment, confiscation of equipment, and attacks on sources of information.

Media safety also requires that media staff develop acute awareness of the socio-political environment and potential volatilities at hand.  Professionalism can also be a significant factor of media safety, as media can often unintentionally (or intentionally) incite further violence or insecurity, through inaccurate or inflammatory reporting.

 

Physical protection of journalists may be more difficult, since an intrusive police presence may interfere with the media’s freedom to gather information. However, law enforcement officials should also be under instructions about the responsibility to protect journalists against attack, physically if necessary.

Freedom of the press affords the public one of the best means of discovering and forming an opinion of the ideas and attitudes of their political leaders. In particular, it gives politicians the opportunity to reflect and comment on the preoccupations of public opinion; it thus enables everyone to participate in the free political debate which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society.

There are two aspects to this democratic role of the media: to inform the public and to act as a watchdog of government. This role does not impose particular duties on any particular newspaper or broadcasting station. Rather it imposes a duty on governments to ensure that the media are able to carry out these functions. This principle clearly has practical implications in the election context.

What is ultimately required however, is concerted advocacy and dedication on the part of all stakeholders to ensure a legal framework wholly supportive of media freedom and rights, and furthermore, that a country’s government and system has the resources as well as will power to implement this framework.

AFRIC Editorial Article.

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