Constitutionally Speaking / Media Alert

The role of the media during elections

“Free and unfettered inquiry is the foundation upon which our first world status will be built.”

Phakama Shili_Constitutionally Speaking column

Phakama Shili, advocacy officer at Swaziland’s Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland), writes a weekly column for Swazi Observer. The column, ‘Constitutionally Speaking’, considers human rights and the quest for democracy in Swaziland. Read on for this week’s article on the role of the media during elections… 

Journalists have an obligation to report the truth. They are bound by the principles of independence, accuracy, honesty and fairness. These things don’t change during elections. If anything, it could be argued that because elections (if free and fair, if truly democratic) hold the possibility of big change, the media must work even harder during elections to ensure it remains independent, accurate, honest and fair.

To elaborate on these principles – and how they might interact with election coverage – one need look no further than Swaziland’s journalism code of ethics; a code that all editors and reporters (by virtue of being an editor or reporter in Swaziland) are bound by – ethically and morally, if not always legally.

Digressing for a moment, there may be no clear legal route or cheap avenue for people who feel they have been wronged by the media. Put another way, if you feel the journalism code of ethics has been breached, it is not always clear how you can take action against the media house. However the new media ombudsman is currently taking complaints against the media. If you wish to correct the media or if you feel ethics have been breached, email the Ombudsman on ombudsman@realnet.co.sz. And to view the code of ethics, go to www.misaswaziland/snaj-code-of-ethics-2

Coming back to the topic at hand, let us consider how the code of ethics deals with the principles of journalism, and how these principles can reinforce good election coverage.

Article 1 of the code of ethics says the media must write and report faithfully, and must “defend the truth”. The same Article says the media must provide the public with “unbiased, accurate, balanced and comprehensive information”.

During elections, therefore, it’s very simple. The media, according to its own code, has a duty to reflect accurately the feeling of the country and to publish and air unbiased information. To get this information, the media, in addition to asking if MPs and other more powerful leaders have done their job well – or even done their job at all – might ask if these elections will help or hinder Swaziland. To ask Swazi citizens: Do you think these elections will help you get a job? Do you think these elections will help you feed your family in the long term? Do you think these elections are even about you? Who would you vote for as prime minister if, indeed, you could vote for him or her? Are you happy with the current political system? Is the status quo helping you? These are the questions – in addition to the daily questions of corruption, scandal, and endless mismanagement – that the code of ethics demands the media ask. In short, can a good tradesman make a difference with broken tools?

And of course the media must aim to get as many sides into a story as possible – this is fair, and the code of ethics in speaking to “balanced” reporting demands it.

Reporters and editors are human and they have opinions and emotions and biases. To counter this human aspect, the media has a duty to interview and report fairly about people they may not necessarily like. They must be fair to all sides, then the truth will emerge and the debate can progress.

The media has been heavily criticised for censoring itself when it comes to issues which have a potential to upset certain sectors of society. During elections, the media should strive to open up for the diverse views of society in order to enable voters to make informed decisions. It is the responsibility of the owners of media outlets, including cases where the owner is the state, to respect the right to freedom of expression and, in particular, the editorial independence of journalists.

Finally, in reporting the news and writing and airing opinions, and this is all year round, especially during elections, reporters and editors and publishers (in theory and reality) should be protected by Section 24 of the Constitution – “Protection of freedom of expression”.

This protection means nothing without the freedom to publish unpopular opinions. It means nothing without the freedom to publish inconvenient truths. It is a worthless protection if it does not allow the media and citizens the right to offend and the right to be offended. Words are just words and opinions are just opinions. More damage is done when words and opinions are suppressed; it’s like neglecting a call of nature.

Free and unfettered inquiry is the foundation upon which our first world status will be built. For without the freedom to speak your mind and suggest new and creative ideas, we risk committing the same errors and falling into the same traps. We must open our minds, to other people and to the world. When minds are opened and we can speak freely in private and public, every day of the year, the economy and society will follow suit. Open, free and rich minds lead to open, free and rich economies.

The definition of madness, said Albert Einstein, is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. One way of guarding against this is allowing true and honest freedom of speech – allowing good ideas to contest against bad ones. Allowing intelligence to win over ignorance. This is more important than ever during free and fair elections. As advocacy officer for MISA-Swaziland, a media freedom NGO, I believe the Constitution allows the right to speak your mind – what are we waiting for? First world status is in our hands.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Swazi Observer on Thursday July 18, 2013.

You will find all of Phakama’s ‘Constitutionally Speaking’ articles by clicking here

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