Media coverage of elections has over the years been severely criticised for being event and personality driven and for not focussing on the issues affecting the electorate.
Too often journalists opt for easy coverage – campaign events and which politicians says what where and when – instead of holding politicians accountable for their service delivery records on the issues that affect ordinary citizens.
Politicians see this sort of 'shallow' coverage as a means to elevate themselves in public consciousness, knowing that whatever they say will be published or broadcast without too many serious questions being asked of their credentials and fitness to hold public office.
It goes without saying that the election period is an intense one and that the media can only do so much with the limited resources at their disposal.
However, too much of the current coverage of the Namibian election campaigns revolves around politicians making speeches at rallies and party functions, while very little reportage is actually done on the pressing social issues – poverty, unemployment, HIV/AIDS, etc. – and the promises made to alleviate them over the years by the same politicians.
Typical media coverage consists of politicians speaking, while the voices of civil society and the public remain largely unheard.
"Of course the press is biased. The gathering, editing and publishing of news involves decisions by people who inevitably bring their own background, values and prejudices to bear on deciding what to select, emphasize and colour as news. Bias is inevitable; it is lack of balance in the representation of a range of views that is criticised. Lack of balance may characterise not only the way politics is presented in reports, but more generally, the way women, unions, homosexuals and minorities are reported." - Anonymous American journalist.
Namibian media are not the only ones guilty of this lack of depth in election reportage.
Following the South African presidential and parliamentary elections in April this year, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) found that South African media coverage had failed to address and “bungled” coverage of the “supreme” topics – service delivery and poverty.
“If you were to gauge what issues are of concern to South Africans through the coverage of elections, then you could be forgiven for thinking that poverty is no longer an issue for the country, and public service delivery is well on the way to meeting citizens' expectations,” the MMA said in one of its numerous election reports.
“If political parties are not addressing these issues in their campaigning activities, and to all indications this is the case, then it primarily falls to media to assist citizens in this way, [which is] reporting and providing analysis on election and political parties in relation to issues that are of critical importance to South Africans and the future of South Africa,” the report stated.
“We see similar trends in coverage of other issues, which we have noted is also minimal. Another reason is perhaps that there is too much focus on the campaigning as though these were American-style elections, and focus on politicians going to places to speak. The focus on the event is often detrimental to coverage of issues. I think editors should be asked this question,” MMA director William Bird was quoted saying.
The MMA findings on South African election coverage could possibly be made applicable to media coverage of the Namibian election campaigning underway at the moment, but it's probably to early to make a call as there are still a few months left before voting day.
"We do not conspire with outsiders because we are newspaper people - not politicians, megalomaniacs or political dilettantes. We do not slant news to favour any political party because - apart from being a fraud on our readers and bad journalism - to do so is dishonest. Journalism in its purest form is simply telling the truth, so long as it is in the public interest. We do not conspire with outsiders. We do not write for politicians or parties. We write for people." - Anonymous editor.
Elections – No greater test
The challenge of objectivity, impartiality and balance in journalism is faced daily by journalists, but there is no test of professionalism greater than that posed in the heat and pressure of a bitterly-fought political election.
The election is also a test of political commitment to democracy. It is a time the impulse to manipulate media and to control information is strongest among ruling parties and political leaders running for office.
And what about voters? Journalists must also provide access to media so that citizens’ voices can be heard above the babble of political debate.
How do journalists cope with these pressures? How can they enforce professional guidelines and rules which will help them to put all sides of an argument? What laws and regulations should restrain political interest groups from exercising undue influence?
In countries where media, press and broadcasting have been traditionally subject to monopoly control and undue political influence, particularly from the state, and sometimes from single-party government, adjusting to multi-party conditions is never easy.
- Aidan White, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) General Secretary.
Questions reporters should be asking themselves
• Is the electoral commission organising the poll independent of the government and balanced/neutral in its composition?
• Have all parties and candidates seeking to stand been allowed to register. Does the electoral law
discriminate against any individual or group?
• Does the media have unrestricted access to all candidates/parties? Any sign that government is using state-run media to attack opposition candidates or restricting their exposure on radio/TV?
• Are political parties state financed? Is there a limit to business/private donations and must parties declare them?
• Can all political rallies take place without intimidation by ruling authorities or rival groups?
- Reuters Foundation