In any election, be it local or national, scheduled or by-election, the media carries the important responsibility of informing and educating citizens on various aspects of the exercise, such as the actors, issues and processes involved.
The media plays the role of a gatekeeper that decides what information on the elections is published or broadcast, and the extent to which different issues, processes or actors should be profiled.
The media also plays the role of a watchdog that investigates and brings to light issues of concern to the citizens, and how different actors are addressing or ignoring them. Where necessary, the media can blow the whistle to expose malpractices or other developments threatening the credibility of an election, and influence advocacy for specific actions to be taken.
The media also informs and educates citizens about the elections, their significance, events, processes and actors involved, as well as the policies, laws and regulations that guide the conduct of democratic elections.
In an election, citizens vote. The media helps them to vote wisely. However, capacity gaps, financial constraints and other challenges are making it increasingly difficult for the media, especially community media, to effectively carry out this responsibility.
Instead of setting the agenda and stimulating engagement on a particular election, most media actors tend to just flow with the tide, as their technical, financial and human resources make it almost impossible to do things differently.
In reflecting on the role of the media in elections, we must be alert to the financial, technical and human resources challenges that media houses, especially community media, have to grapple with in their quest to promote citizens participation in democratic processes, such as elections.
Election management bodies, civil society organisations and other stakeholders must reflect on, and make efforts to address the challenges that hinder the media from advancing citizens’ participation in democratic elections.
In the next few months, five Southern African countries—Malawi, South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia—are scheduled to hold elections. First in line is South Africa which is scheduled to hold national and provincial elections on May 8 2019 to elect members of the National Assembly and members of the provincial legislatures. n