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Elections reporting and media ethics

ELECTIONS are the cornerstone of democracy, and the media has a critical role to play in informing the public about what political parties, their leaders and members are doing, not doing and promising to do.

Opinion by Dumisani Muleya

Polls can be a key element either in both conflict resolution and conflict escalation. Therefore, free and fair elections are essential for democratic consolidation and conflict prevention.

Professional media coverage and how journalists report are crucial during election periods. That is why to promote fair, safe and professional media election coverage, United Nations agencies like Unesco (from whose literature I borrowed extensively) support advocacy to encourage full, fair and efficient disclosure of information to journalists covering elections; training to enhance professional reporting; training on the safety of journalists and their right to work without fear or favour; and production and distribution of guidelines reflecting principles of professional reporting during elections, journalists’ rights, election processes and safety information, as well as briefing notes on international human rights law with emphasis on freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression, including the constitutional right to receive and impart information, is a pre-requisite for free and fair democratic elections. In order to enable citizens to make informed democratic choices, journalists have a heightened responsibility to provide accurate and impartial information to the public during election periods.

Journalists play an important role in the democratic process. So, it is imperative that they be afforded the highest level of access to election-related events, access to information, and protection from all forms of harassment and/or intimidation as reasonably possible during the election campaign period.

Media practitioners also have a crucial role in telling politicians what ordinary people want, or do not want, and in ensuring that the polls are free and fair. This is particularly important for countries without a solid democratic foundation, or which are struggling to break away from dictatorship to democracy.

Covering elections should not merely be from the time election dates are proclaimed to when they take place, but should span the period well before, during and after the polls.

This implies something. Journalists must be equipped in many different ways to do a good professional job. This means they must know the history, contesting parties and their leaders, as well as political economy of the country they are reporting on.

Some of the key issues journalists must be familiar with include the following:

Electoral system;
legal framework;
electoral commission;
voter registration process;
electoral preparations;
voter information and education;
media structure and set-up;
out-of-country registration and postal ballots;
pre-polling environment and complaints;
code of conduct for parties;
primaries and nomination of candidates;
polling day and voting procedures;
vote counting and compilation of results; and
post-election events and complaints
Journalists covering elections should know the electoral law by heart. If something is not right, it is up to them to campaign for rectification. They must closely follow the selection and nomination of candidates and check that all candidates seeking to stand have been allowed to register, for instance. They must also make sure that the current electoral laws do not discriminate against any individuals or groups on grounds of race, creed, religion, gender or ethnicity, among other issues.

Electoral systems
There are many electoral systems around the world, but they mainly fall under three categories:

Plurality: A candidate who obtains more votes than any other is elected even if that candidate wins only a minority of votes cast. The most common form of this is the “first-past-the-post” system, sometimes known as “winner takes all”, used in countries such as Britain, the United States, India and Zimbabwe (until the new constitution came in recently although the country has used party lists before), among others.

Majority: The successful candidate must win more votes than those of all the others combined. This is normally achieved by holding a two-round contest in which the early loser is eliminated after the first.

Proportional Representation (PR): The most common version of this is when voters choose from party lists and seats are allocated according to the votes going to each party. This is used in most European countries, South Africa and Israel. Zimbabwe has partly adopted this and thus it now has a mixture of plurality and PR.

Single-Transferable Vote (STV): There is also the so-called STV where voters indicate an order of preference among candidates. Once a candidate has received enough votes to be elected outright, second preference votes are added to the totals of the remaining candidates.
Each system has its own strengths and weaknesses, but Zimbabwe now has a mixture of plurality and PR.

Free and fair elections
What are free and fair elections? Some are now using the phrase “peaceful and credible elections” instead of free and fair. But what are free and fair elections?

I looked at many different definitions of this, but chose this one by Human Rights Watch which is contained in Unesco documents on media and election reporting.

“An election is ‘free’ when it reflects the full expression of the political will of the people concerned. Freedom in this sense involves the ability to participate in the political process without intimidation, coercion, discrimination, or the abridgment of the rights to associate with others, to assemble and to receive or impart information.

“The ‘fairness’ of an election refers to the right to vote on the basis of equality, non-discrimination, and universality. No portion of the electorate should be arbitrarily disqualified, or have their votes given extra weight.”

The basics
As soon as an election is announced and campaigning begins, the media should carry essential information on how many parties are involved, how many candidates, the number of constituencies and eligible voters, among other things.

Campaign funding
Journalists must be interested in how parties are funded and how they finance their campaigns. Is there a system of state financing for political parties, as exists in other countries? Is there a limit to business/private donations to party campaigns? And is there an obligation for parties to declare them?

The public is entitled to know if candidates are receiving significant cash from narrow business interests, with the potential of influencing the policy of a future government.

Currently, the main tools of election campaigning are the broadcast media, particularly TV, and social media.

In Britain, for instance, all broadcast media are barred from carrying election advertising apart from brief party political broadcasts which are carried simultaneously by all principal TV channels.

There are also restrictions on how much each candidate can spend on campaigning, based on the size of the electoral district, as well as national spending limits on each party. Most campaigning is done by door-to-door or telephone canvassing by party workers, election rallies, leaflets through letter boxes and via social media.
In the US, there are no limits to campaign spending, the bulk of it on TV.

Election campaigns are challenging and exhausting for journalists covering them. Since campaign rallies and debates are usually signalled well in advance, media organisations should draw up detailed daily and weekly schedules assigning reporters to the various events so that the campaign period is covered as much as possible.

The issues
Increasingly, elections have been dominated by the personality of the candidates. Journalists should try to keep the focus on issues, by talking to ordinary people, particularly those lacking a strong voice in society (even though social media now provides them with vast platforms) — the elderly and the young, women, and in some countries, the poor as well as ethnic and religious minorities. Ask them if they are better or worse off since the last polls. Put their views to the candidates, and report their responses with emphasis on issues rather than personalities and speechifying.

Media coverage and ethics
Journalists must know the media structure and set-up in their country and the operating environment, including constitutional and legal frameworks, as well as the political climate.

Is there unrestricted access for the media to all candidates/parties? All responsible media should report impartially about the elections, particularly state-run media, since they are funded by the tax-payer.

Some governments have used media they control to attack opposition candidates, restrict their coverage, while offering unlimited space and airtime to the ruling or dominant party and the incumbent.

News can manipulate people and be manipulated to set the agenda as we all know. Governments and corporates which own the media often attempt to manipulate news in service of their agendas, be they political or commercial, or both.

This implies journalists must strictly be guided by media professional ethics and standards in their work to resist undue influences. These include public interest, truth, accuracy, fairness and balance. In general terms, this all implies objectivity in their coverage.

Good journalists should report on elections in a non-partisan way, suppressing their own political prejudices and views in order to allow the public to make up their minds solely on the basis of what the various candidates are offering.

Role of social media
It is generally agreed that a plural and diverse as well as free and independent press is a cornerstone of democracy as it promotes public debate and keeps government accountable to an informed citizenry. A free media is also crucial for credible elections, as it fosters the free exchange of ideas and provides information on the electoral process.

An informed citizenry is a crucial component of a healthy and resilient democracy as it engages in a variety of civic education activities, including informing voters of their rights and responsibilities while empowering them to have a voice in the way they are governed.

So, given the advent of social media, journalists should use social media technology or tools to broaden their coverage of electoral processes and issues, while ensuring interaction between them, parties, politicians and the people.

Social media tools — including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, MySpace, Google Plus+, DeviantArt, LiveJournal, Tagged and Orkut, among others — have transformed the way we live and how information is exchanged as they allow us to engage and discuss issues on public forums with other people all over the world.

Since content or news travels much faster on social media than through any other medium, journalists must take full advantage of this to help them do their work more resourcefully and efficiently, including covering of elections to send and receive news and information, although this presents ethical challenges.

It would be interesting to observe how journalists, as well as other Zimbabweans, use social media during the next elections. Democracy flourishes when all groups in society are involved in how their leaders are elected, how the country is run and how they are governed.

Safety of journalists
The first banal rule in journalism relating to risky coverage of events is that no story is worth dying for, although I must add this should not imply that cowardice is a virtue.

The preservation of life and safety is paramount. Journalists must be aware that unwarranted risks in pursuit of a story are unacceptable and strongly discouraged. As a result, media houses must consider safety first, before competitive advantage.

Journalists must also remember that they are neutral observers. They should always remain impartial during the course of their work to avoid being caught in partisan disputes and conflicts.

Governments, parties and most importantly security forces must respect the safety of journalists in their areas of operation. They must not unnecessarily restrict freedom of movement or compromise the right of the media to gather and disseminate information. Security forces must never harass, intimidate or physically attack journalists going about their lawful business.

On their part, journalists must take precautionary measures and avoid being reckless on duty.

Muleya is the Zimbabwe Independent editor. This is an edited version of a paper he presented to local journalists at a Misa workshop in Bulawayo last Friday.

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