SADC Guidelines on Media Coverage of Elections

Guidelines on Media Coverage of Elections in the SADC region


We, the participants — journalists, broadcasters, media practitioners, media organisations, media councils and representatives of electoral management bodies throughout the SADC region gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa on 26 September, 2012 for the MISA Conference on Media and Elections.

Recognizing the importance of democratic elections at all levels;

Noting the important role of free media in promoting democracy, including the conduct of free and fair elections;

With due emphasis on the fundamental principle of editorial independence and importance of the media during election periods;

Firmly guided by the protocols, charters, conventions and guidelines endorsed, signed and/or ratified by our governments in the region in their desire to ensure the success of democratic processes and in particular:

  • The  African  Charter  on  Human  and  Peoples‘  Rights  (1981)
  • The Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press (1991)
  • The African Charter on Broadcasting (2001)
  • The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, adopted by formal resolution by the African Commission on  Human  and  Peoples’ Rights (2002)
  • The SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2004)
  • The Southern African Broadcasting Association: Guidelines and Principles for Broadcast Coverage of Election in the SADC Region (2005)
  • The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (2007).

Acknowledging the continuing challenges of limited access to information during the
electoral cycle, amidst election conflict and violence, throughout elections conducted in
adverse environments of intolerance, especially of dominant ruling party states, and state

Aware of the continuing deficit of freedom of expression and media freedom in parts of
Southern Africa;

Appreciating the diversity of the electorate, especially the different information needs of
marginalised communities and differently-abled persons;

Firmly believing that the coverage of elections by the media should be fair, accurate and

Recognising the need to take account of the significant differences which exist between the
private, public and community media in the region as well as the differences between print,
electronic and new media;

Taking into consideration that public service broadcasters have a particular mandate in ensuring fair and thorough coverage of elections through equitable distribution of airtime to political parties and candidates.

Mindful of the need for gender-sensitive and equitable reporting and programming of all information during the electoral cycle;

Determined to assist voters make informed choices:

Hereby agree on, adopt and resolve to abide by or support the implementation of the following voluntary guidelines, which media professionals are urged to apply throughout the electoral process – pre-voting, voting and post voting period.

1. Role of the media in elections

The role of the media during the entire electoral process is to ensure that voters make informed choices. The coverage of candidates, parties and electoral processes is in pursuit of this central purpose.

Principal roles of the media in elections are defined as follows:

The media are required to provide relevant information, analyse it and additionally offer substantive opinions to the public, while also serving as a platform for debate and discussion. Furthermore, the media shall fulfill their watchdog role by promoting transparency and thus preventing electoral fraud.

The media have a duty to provide election coverage that gives the voter comprehensive, accurate and reliable information on all aspects of the electoral process. This information will also help to ensure that the voters know and understand their democratic rights and exercise them free from fear, intimidation or coercion.

As the Fourth Estate the media is expected to:

a) Ensure that journalists are familiar with the national legislative framework governing the electoral process and are fully conversant with all aspects of the electoral process, including the electoral institutions

b)  Be familiar with regional and continental principles and benchmarks on election coverage

c)  Provide platforms for accessing information that enable informed analysis and opinion on elections.

The role of the media is to report during the entire electoral process:


  • Electoral management institutions
  • Civic education
  • Electoral system
  • Demarcation of constituencies
  • Voter registration
  • Voters’  roll
  • Candidate or party registration
  • Nomination processes
  • Official campaign period

Voting Period

  • Voting days
  • Voting procedures
  • Location of polling stations
  • Activities at polling stations
  • Role of stakeholders at polling stations
  • Election monitors
  • Election observers and their observations
  • Vote counting and results

Post-Voting Period

  • Appointments to office
  • Analysis of promises made by the government/governing party
  • Holding parties accountable

2. Conditions necessary for the media to play an effective role

Freedom of expression, freedom of the media and access to information are crucial for media to play these roles effectively. Also of critical importance are:

a)  Media houses provide adequate resources to their journalists for effective election coverage

b)  The media enjoy unfettered editorial and programming independence from all vested interests including candidates, parties, media owners and organisations allied to and/or supporting candidates and political parties

c)  All laws that hinder the media in fulfilling their role are repealed

d)  All media are allowed access to all election activities, including rallies, media conferences, candidates, parties and electoral management institutions and officials

e)  Transparent polling procedures, fair, open counting of the votes and timely release of the results are guaranteed

f)  Journalists and media houses can operate in an environment free of violence, harassment and intimidation

g)  Sources and interviewees are not threatened, intimidated or harassed

h)  Perpetrators of attacks against media personnel and property are brought to justice

i)  State and public broadcasters are transformed into truly public service broadcasters as outlined amongst others in the African Charter on Broadcasting

j)  Whistleblowers are protected

k)  Complaints procedures for aggrieved media professionals exist (e.g. complaint mechanisms of Electoral Management Bodies)

Public authorities should take appropriate steps for the effective protection of journalists and other media personnel and their premises. At the same time this protection should not obstruct them in carrying out their work. Journalists reporting on the electoral process have a right to be protected from undue pressure and interference from public authorities with a view to influencing the elections.

3. Ethical considerations in election coverage

Journalists and editors should act with integrity and should neither ask for, nor accept bribes of any kind, be they financial or other, or give special favours to any politicians or party. Journalists should not defame or promote hate, violence or corruption.

Given the critical importance of media in covering the elections, the media must at all times observe the core values and principles of journalism which include:

a) Fairness and Accuracy
During election periods the media must recognise that government officials are in a position to use their incumbency to advance their electoral prospects and should regard with particular caution any statement or action by an official of an incumbent party. In particular, media should ensure that they do  not  afford  the  policies  of  incumbent  parties’  greater  legitimacy  than  they  would  afford  those  policies or actions if the party were not in government.

News reports must be factual, accurate, well-sourced and based on sound evidence. News should be comprehensive, fair and balanced ensuring that all candidates, parties and election issues are given equitable and gender-sensitive coverage.

b) Opinion and Analysis
Editorial opinion must be clearly distinguished from fact or news. A diversity of opinions representing the broadest possible range of views and ideas especially those of contesting candidates and political parties should be allowed across all media platforms.

Media which choose to endorse candidates or parties must ensure the endorsement is clearly presented as opinion and is not part of its news reports.

Analysis should provide insights based on research and diversity of expert opinions which enable voters to get a deeper understanding of processes, issues and candidates.

Debate and discussion platforms, which include representatives of all shades of political opinion, experts and civil society representatives should be organised. As far as possible, and especially in the electronic media (including presidential or prime ministerial) candidates should be given an opportunity to debate with each other in moderated programmes.

c) Use of Language
Media must, without censoring and undermining the freedom of expression of anyone, avoid and preclude the use of language which constitutes hate speech incites violence or promotes stereotypes.

d) Right of Reply
A fair opportunity to reply to inaccuracies and allegations contained in a report that has been broadcast or published should be given to aggrieved individuals or organisations. The right of reply must be given in a timely manner and in a similar programme, and with respect to the print media in space of appropriate prominence.

e) Diversity and Confidentiality of Sources
The media have an obligation to reflect the diversity and plurality of voices in society in its coverage including those of marginalised groups.

Reporting should be gender-balanced and sensitive, treating men and women equally as news sources and subjects.

Confidentiality of sources must be protected by the media (whereby the journalist knows the identity of the source even when not revealing it). Whenever possible the media should refrain from using anonymous sources (whereby the journalist does not know the identity of the source). The principle of multiple sources to verify information and facts applies.

The media should recognise their obligation to the electorate to provide a full and accurate record of events and developments. It is critically important that media proactively seek information from political parties and not wait for information to be delivered to them. Failure to do so will give parties with greater resources inequitable amounts of news coverage.

f) Media Public Accountability
In ensuring their responsibility to the voters and exercising their right to freedom of expression, journalists shall respect the rights, integrity and reputation of others in terms of these guidelines as well as codes of conduct established by self-regulatory bodies.

4. Reporting on election observers and election monitors

Journalists are expected to distinguish between:

Election Observation  being the information gathering, fact finding and reporting on the credibility, legitimacy and transparency of the electoral process often carried out by external personnel, who are not permitted to intervene in the voting and counting operation,


Election Monitoring  referring to the information gathering, fact finding and reporting on the credibility, legitimacy and transparency of the electoral process carried out by local agencies or personnel, who are able to draw attention to observed deficiencies during the voting and counting operations.

Media houses must scrutinize the work and reports of election observers and election monitors, including their identity i.e. the organisations and institutions they are from, their expertise and experience in election observation or election monitoring. They must report the methodologies used by election observers and election monitors and how they arrive at their conclusions.

5. Role of public and private media regarding election advertorials

State-operated media, and more specifically public service broadcasters, have a particular role to play in ensuring fair, balanced and equitable coverage and allocation of free airtime for party political broadcasts. In this regard they should work closely with independent electoral bodies, media regulatory bodies, media councils and Media Ombudsmen in developing formulas for fair and equitable allocation of airtime.

All media houses should adopt their own transparent in-house policy or code on campaign advertisement and sponsorship. Such a policy should ensure that all candidates and parties are treated equitably.

Political adverts and advertorials should be clearly distinguished from editorial content. Before and after each party election broadcast there should be a clear statement identifying it as such.

Where media give political parties time slots to air programmes setting out their policies to voters, the content of the programmes will primarily be the responsibility of the party.

However, the broadcaster remains responsible for the broadcast as publisher and should require candidates and political parties to obey laws which may not impinge on freedom of expression, but instead observe standards that pertain to accuracy and fairness.

6. Converged media

With rapidly evolving ICTs, traditional media is expanding into the new and social media sphere and media outlets have a responsibility to extend the application of journalistic principles to these diverse platforms.

Specifically, the use of social media in election coverage of conventional media should take into account the following:

a)  Journalistic standards and ethics still apply

b)  Journalists using social media platforms in their personal as well as professional capacity should try to separate the two as their audience might not be able to differentiate.

In conclusion, journalists should not be seduced by the informality of social media and compromise their integrity and professionalism.

7. Polls

a) Opinion Polls
Opinion polls are an important element in election coverage because they are one way of determining public attitudes toward issues, candidates and parties. In this regard they can enrich coverage and enable voters to get a fuller picture of an election.

In reporting, opinion polls media need to reveal which party, individual or organisation commissioned and paid for the poll, the purposes of the poll, the identity of the polling organisation and its expertise in polling; the nature of the questions or issues the poll focused on, the geographic coverage and demographic profile of those who were polled, the methodologies used in polling including details of the sample and the margin of error which will contextualise the poll results.

b) Exit Polls
Reporting of exit polls should be clearly identified as such and not as a reflection of how all voters have actually voted and what the outcome of the election will be. The reporting should reveal a sample of the exit poll, the organisation that conducted and financed it, its methodologies and the margin of error. Results of exit polls should not be announced or broadcast until after the last polling stations have closed.

8. Reporting results

Media covering elections are obliged to inform the electorate of the election results in a comprehensive way, as they become available, whether provisional or final, as released by the Electoral Management Body. Journalists should take special care when predicting final results based on partial results available.

When reporting on parallel vote tabulation, journalists should be aware that parallel vote tabulation is an estimation of final results of an election based on the collection and aggregation of election results obtained at polling station level. This collection can be complete (all polling stations) or based on a random sample (selected polling stations). While parallel vote tabulation has a solid level of statistical validity, journalists must exercise caution, care and responsibility in reporting parallel vote tabulation to avoid confusing or mixing up official tallies and parallel tabulation. In reporting parallel vote tabulation media need to reveal which individual or organisation commissioned and paid for the parallel vote tabulation, the purposes of the parallel vote tabulation and the methodology used.

9. SMS surveys, phone-ins and talk shows

a) Radio/Television instant SMS audience surveys
With the increase in use of mobile phones, radio and television broadcasters conduct so-called ‘opinion polls’ during news bulletins, using text messages (SMS) sent by the audience, and giving immediate results of  the ‘poll’  at the end of the programme. Such  a  practice can  be misleading as it contravenes the basic rules of scientific methodology and analysis.

Results  from  ‘SMS  polls’  should  not  be treated as representative scientific results. If a broadcaster uses them nonetheless, they should at least make the audience aware of the lack of scientific methodology and indicate the number of respondents.  ‘SMS  polls’ can be  reported as a reflection of some people’s opinions and provide a snapshot of feelings and  changes of views during an election. However, media must be alert and make their audiences aware of possible manipulation of SMS surveys by individual politicians and political or other interested parties.

b) Guidelines for Phone-ins and talk shows
Phone-ins and talk shows provide the viewer or listener with an opportunity to be heard, to participate, and sometimes to create content. Unlike newspaper copy or pre-recorded programmes, live radio and television can pose a challenge though.

Presenters must become their own editors and be acutely aware of the sort of content that should not be aired. This includes hate speech, ethnic baiting, lies and propaganda, crude and vulgar language, incitement to violence, and unverified information.

  • Journalistic principles must apply during the programme
  • The presenter should be alert and prepared to challenge a caller who says something that is problematic
  • Time-delay technology or other mechanisms to filter out offensive content or calls prior to broadcast should be installed
  • Viewers, listeners and callers should be treated with respect, honesty and fairness
  • The privacy of callers should be respected and their personal information safeguarded (e.g. the telephone numbers of callers should not be revealed to third parties).

10. Implementation and monitoring of media and election guidelines

To implement these guidelines effectively media houses need to do the following:

a)  Initiate a process of domestication at national level allowing for amendments of the guidelines and aiming to create ownership and commitment by the media

b)  Develop in-house editorial codes and policies based on these guidelines

c)  Publish these guidelines and any internal codes that they develop to promote awareness and to help the public monitor media performance

d)  Establish their own internal mechanism to monitor their performance and, where resources are available, to contract external parties who have expertise in media monitoring

e)  Be prepared to take corrective measures to address problems of performance identified through media monitoring.


  1. Guidelines for Election Coverage, Media Council Kenya
  2. Principles for Election Management, Monitoring and Observation in the SADC Region, Electoral Commissions Forum and Electoral Institute of Southern Africa
  3. Recommendations of the Committee of Ministers, Council of Europe

Participants of the conference were drawn from different SADC countries and organizations:

Freelance journalist

Press Council of Botswana
MISA Botswana
Independent Electoral Commission Democratic Republic of Congo Electoral Commission

MISA Lesotho
Harvest FM (Radio)
Electoral Commission

TV PLUS Madagascar
Freelance journalist
Madagascar Electoral Commission- CENIT

Media Council of Malawi
MISA Malawi
Malawi Electoral Commission

Mauritius Electoral Commission

Electoral Commission Mozambique

Editors’  Forum  of  Namibia
MISA Namibia
Electoral Commission Namibia

Electoral Commission Seychelles

South Africa
South African National Editors’ Forum

Swaziland  Editors’  Forum
Swaziland Media Complaints Commission
MISA Swaziland
Electoral and Boundaries Commission Swaziland

MISA Tanzania
National Electoral Commission of Tanzania
Zanzibar Electoral Commission

Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC)
MISA Zambia
The Post, Press Freedom Committee
Electoral Commission Zambia

Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe
MISA Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe Electoral Commission

Media Council Kenya

SADC- Electoral Commission Forum

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