Ensuring Effective Media Coverage Of Elections

By Sola Imoru

An election involves a chain of activities which include voter registration, primary election, campaign, voting, collation and declaration of election results, and post-election issues.

For an election to be credible, each of these activities has to be transparent and credible.

Lack of credibility and transparency accounted for the wobbling profile of the post-independence elections in Nigeria. At each of the elections under reference were gaps of education, information, sensitisation, investigation, ethics, which were the core responsibilities and values  of the media. However, all the election or political stakeholders were active players in the compromise and gang-up against the state and good governance.

As the nation prepares for the 2018 Ekiti and Osun states elections and the 2019 general elections, the media have a duty to observe its code of ethics and educate and sensitize the public on their expectations and responsibilities in each of these activities. The media also have a responsibility to investigate the candidates for elections and the electoral procedures to ensure that the best candidates are elected and that the right procedures are applied.

COVERAGE OF VOTER REGISTRATION:

It is the duty of the media to educate the public on the methodology and timelines for registration and to mobilize and provide the platform for mobilizing voters to register. The media also have a duty to expose sharp practices of desperate politicians to ensure credibility for the exercise.

Whenever innovations are introduced by the electoral body to strengthen the electoral process, it is the responsibility of the media to educate the public on the desirability and workings of the innovation. When electronic voting was mooted in 2007, the media collaborated with the civil society to resolve the challenges of the exercise and the extent to which it could be introduced.

The media were also at the vanguard of educating the public on the desirability and challenges of the card reader when it was introduced during the 2015 elections.

The media must ensure credible voter registration by making sure that the exercise is carried out according to the rules and by exposing the antics of desperate politicians to engage in multiple and underage registration during the registration exercise.

COVERAGE OF PRIMARY ELECTIONS:

The choice of a candidate from among scores of aspiring candidates by political parties is always a tough, rigorous and volatile exercise. Although democratic ideals require that the exercise should be democratic and transparent, more often than not, the exercise is riddled with candidate imposition, corruption, lack of internal democracy and offer of tickets to the highest bidder or ruling party’s anointed candidate in a developing democracy like ours. All these anomalies impugn on the health and growth of democracy and must be checked.

The media have a duty to investigate and expose these unwholesome activities to ensure that internal democracy is enthroned during primary elections. With the benefit of hindsight, shoddy handling of primaries was partly responsible for the heavy litigation that trailed the 2007 election. The media must also ensure that the profiles of the aspirants are thoroughly investigated so that the best candidates could emerge. The inability of the media to thoroughly do its job at this level was responsible for the certificate scandals that emerged after candidates had taken office in some of the previous elections.

When the best candidates emerge in the primaries, chances are that competition will be healthy and credible and reportage will be relatively objective and balanced as desperation will be minimal.

COVERAGE OF ELECTION CAMPAIGNS: 

Campaigns offer opportunities for all the candidates or aspirants and their parties to sell their programmes to the electorate and win their sympathy and vote. Campaign is executed through direct contact with the electorate but mainly in the media as it is impossible for candidates to reach all the electorate in all the constituencies and wards. It is the period candidates make up their minds on candidates based on information made available to them by the media.

Experience in the previous elections shows that the media belonging to the ruling parties (parties in government) monopolized the media and denied the opposition candidates and parties access. These media were also used to malign and vilify the opposition. The private media whose proprietors had sympathy for particular political parties towed the same line.

The media further fouled the air during the 2015 elections by making their platforms theatres of hate speech during campaigns. Even some media noted for the highest journalistic ideals could not resist the temptation to carry hate adverts during this period for peculiarly gains.

The media have to move away from this ignoble path. Campaign in the technology- and knowledge-driven 21st Century should be issues based and merit driven in line with best practices. The media owners — government and private — should allow all the candidates equal access to their media.

There is also the need for journalists to grant equitable coverage to the candidates. The classification or demarcation of candidates and parties into major and minor candidates and parties as was done in the previous elections when the number of political parties became unwieldy should be discouraged. If it is possible for the media to report the 36 states of the Federation, the Federal Government and its agencies, reporting about 50 candidates equitably is doable! All the candidates should be granted equal prominence and reported on equitably. Reports should not be tilted in favour of some candidates at the expense of others. Since news is what the media make available to the public, the media must be fair, objective and balanced in their reportage of issues, events and candidates.

While the aspirants are seeking to influence the public to win election, the media are seeking to influence the public to elect the best candidates for the public good. In achieving these respective but sharply diametrical purposes, there has been pressure on the media to pander to the side of some candidates. The ability of the media to resist this pressure is what makes the difference between a credible election and a flawed one.

As a body charged with holding government accountable, the media have a responsibility to provide information in a balanced and fair manner on all candidates to enable the candidates to make informed choices. The media should therefore provide information on issues and candidates in the right quality and quantity and with a high sense of responsibility as such information are capable of making or marring candidates.

COVERAGE OF VOTING EXERCISE:

Voting is critical to the electoral process as the choice of candidates is done through the exercise. In developing democracies, a lot of rigging and irregularities occur during voting.  The problems, indeed, lie with the stakeholders — the media; the electoral body, INEC; politicians; the security agencies or law enforcement agencies; and the vulnerable electorate.

The ownership system of the media by government and private proprietors who are mainly politicians made objective and balanced coverage of elections in the previous election difficult. Respective governments, for instance, are the appointers of the editorial boards and editors of the media; the government is the owner of the security apparatuses and the appointer of the electoral body.

The passage of the Freedom of Information Act and the autonomy granted INEC as recommended by the Uwais Committee as well as the Media Governing Code should embolden the media to stand on the side of credible election by reporting election in an objective and balanced manner.

The preponderance of private online media some of which are owned by professional journalists should also be a fillip to the reportage of balanced news coverage in the forthcoming election. The media must beam their light on all the stakeholders — INEC, security agencies, candidates, political parties and the voters.

COVERAGE OF ELECTION RESULTS:

The body legally and statutorily empowered to announce election results is the electoral umpire, INEC. However, experience in the previous elections was that results were compromised by INEC as there were discrepancies in some instances in the actual results of elections and those announced by INEC. This position was reinforced by the upturning of some of the election results announced by INEC by the courts during the 2007 elections.

These discrepancies created lack of confidence in INEC and possibly emboldened the media, especially the online genre, as well as the social media, to publish parallel election results as soon as they were released from the collation centres. This, of course, is unconstitutionality.

The point must be made that the press has no business announcing parallel election results. Published results should be as announced by the Resident Electoral Commissioner and the Chairman of INEC as the case may be. Corroborating this view and proposing a truce, Oboh (2014) advises that “the press can keep a record of the observed discrepancies between the media version of the results from the official results released by the electoral commission. The results of the elections complied by the media could serve as evidence the court and the Electoral Tribunal will be evaluating the claims and objections raised by the candidates who unconstitutionally lost their seats to their opponents in the elections.”

The restraint on the press not to publish results however terminates at the point of announcement of results as the law is silent on post-announcement publication of election results. Journalists are, therefore, free to comment on election results in their columns and analyses, using empirical statistics collated on the field for as long as the elections are not before the courts. Suffice it to say that the media’s collation and reportage of election results should be done in an objective, accurate and balanced manner.

COVERAGE OF POST-ELECTION ISSUES: 

In developing democracies, election results are more often than not contentious. Unfavourable election results in Nigeria manifest in two forms: litigation and crises. Coverage of litigation and crises arising from elections, like elections, are reported in the media with bias because of the reasons earlier discussed. News, analyses, features and editorial opinions were written with the bias of the owners — government or private — and those of the writers. The media must be able to ‘stand for the truth’ during election crises. Coverage of post-election results must be done in tandem with the principles of balance, objectivity, prominence and impartiality.

The beauty of an election is in the credibility of its processes and conduct. The mechanism for achieving these is having the stakeholders to observe all the rules. As a body constitutionally charged with holding government and its agencies to account, the media have to resolve to purge itself of unnecessary baggage, take a break from the past, approach 2019 with renewed commitment and determination in order to entrench a New Democratic Order and achieve sustainable peace and prosperity for the nation.

Sola Imoru, former Group Political Editor of The Punch, is currently Head, Information, Protocol and Public Relations, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba Akoko, Ondo State.

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