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The Role of the Media and Other Civil Society Organisations in Elections in SADC
SADC Barometer Issue 4, Jan 2004, South African Institute of International Affairs
January 31, 2004
By Michael Davies

Civil society does have an extremely important role to play in ensuring that elections accurately reflect the wishes of a well-educated and democratically responsible citizenry.

It is now more than a decade since a number of African countries, including several in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), took their first tentative steps towards democracy. Civil society - the loose collection of voluntary organisations, groups, associations and networks that form an intermediary level between the state and the household, and which, defined broadly, includes all forms of non-governmental co-operation - played an important role in making these steps possible. In Zambia, for example, the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), led by Frederick Chiluba, in collaboration with various other civil society groups such as church organisations and academia, successfully challenged President Kenneth Kaunda's 30-year incumbency in 1991.

Encouragingly, at least two general elections have been held in most SADC states since 1990, and five SADC states (Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa) are scheduled to conduct multiparty general elections in 2004. While this could suggest that democratisation in the region is moving from a phase of transition to one of consolidation, not all signs are positive. Zimbabwe is currently in political turmoil; the recent local elections in Mozambique were marred by reports of voterigging; and Swaziland continues to be ruled by the continent's last absolute monarch. In order for democracy in the region to be strengthened and consolidated, it is crucial that the five elections in SADC states in 2004 are well organised and that they are conducted in a free and fair manner. Although democracy is not an ad hoc event (every five years), where civil society should be galvanised, civil society does have an extremely important role to play in ensuring that elections accurately reflect the wishes of a well-educated and democratically responsible citizenry.

It is vital that civil society involvement begins well before the actual day of the election. It should continuously lobby the government to institute free and fair electoral procedures. It should also undertake pre-election monitoring, as this is often the phase during which elections are rigged, or when intimidation mars their fairness. Voter education programmes covering issues such as voter registration and the process of voting itself should be provided prior to the election. Such programmes should go deeper than just 'voter education'; and extend to civic education, which demonstrates the importance of the electoral process and how a democracy should function. This is necessary if democracy is to be understood and practised. Civil society should also mobilise the electorate by encouraging them to register and participate in the election.

The monitoring of the voting and counting procedures on the day of the election, to ensure that there are no incidents of electoral fraud, is another important role of civil society. Although it is common for international organisations to participate in the observation of elections in SADC, local organisations are better placed than international observers to monitor the entire process of the election from a much earlier stage, having a better understanding of the language, culture and context in which the election takes place. For this reason, it is critical that local and regional organisations learn to perform this function effectively and transparently.

Finally, civil society groups such as religious bodies can act as informal arbitrators of disputes both on election day and following the election by using their standing in the community. In this way they can encourage the various parties to resolve their issues peacefully through discussion and mediation.

However, the political space must be open to allow civil society to make a contribution. Within SADC there are a number of possible obstructions that might prevent civil society from fulfilling these roles in elections. Firstly, governments may attempt to constrain civil society through regulation or legislative means. This is the case in Zimbabwe, where the Private Voluntary Organisation Act stipulates that all such organisations must be registered with the government, which has appointed a board with the power to decide which organisations to accredit. Secondly, government may try to co-opt civil society leaders that it finds potentially threatening. This is often the case with trade unions and student organisations, as these groups are more prone to activism than other parts of civil society. Thirdly, a lack of funding, exacerbated by economic conditions, might restrict the role that civil society could play in elections. This is often linked to weaknesses in skills capacity and knowledge about doing advocacy and lobbying work and a lack of organisational capacity. As a result of these constraints, civil society often suffers from a lack of influence or power, especially in countries in which the government is highly centralised and dominant.

Although most civil society organisations can be involved in ensuring that electoral practices are free and fair, it is the media that are best placed to play the most significant role. The potential of the media to assist the consolidation of democracy is undeniable. The press and radio and TV networks have access to a significant proportion of the electorate, and can communicate invaluable information, such as where and how to register, and where and how to vote. It is also important that voters are provided with sufficient data about the political parties, the candidates and their policies, so that the choice they make when voting is an informed one. The provision of such knowledge is largely the responsibility of the media. Television, radio and print allow political parties and their candidates to communicate with the electorate, and give voters a way to articulate their views to political leaders. Even more important, the media can and should facilitate debate, not only between the various political parties, but also amongst the electorate. As Dr Tawana Kupe, head of Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, comments, this role is extremely important in SADC countries, where there is currently very little engagement between candidates.

William Bird, director of the Media Monitoring Project in South Africa, suggests a more dynamic role for the media in South Africa. 'The media needs to dictate the news agenda', argues Bird, 'instead of merely reporting on an election event such as a campaign rally'. By being proactive, instead of allowing politicians to direct the coverage of elections, the media can help the electorate to identify which parties are most likely to serve their particular interests. Kupe supports this view, and argues that the lack of critical analysis of both the party manifestoes for upcoming elections and past policies contributes to voter apathy. These arguments are applicable to all SADC countries. The media are also well positioned to act as 'watchdogs', detecting and reporting any events that are contrary to the country's electoral law. Finally, they have one other important responsibility: the reporting of the election results.

The media suffers its own difficulties in performing its roles in the electoral process. One significant limitation is that of access. The high rates of illiteracy in SADC states and the lack of an adequate distribution network, especially in rural areas, mean that the effectiveness of print media is severely constrained. A lack of resources is also a problem. As Bird points out, without resources and skills, the media will be unable to shift from reporting events to debating issues. The independence of the media is another reason the media often finds it difficult to perform certain roles in elections. While radio is a medium that allows for greater accessibility to the population in many SADC countries, it is often, like television, controlled by the state. Clearly, when media is owned by the state, even if it does have some degree of autonomy, it is difficult for it to avoid accusations of bias and act as a watchdog. This is evident in South Africa where the SABC has recently been accused of giving the ANC an unfair advantage by covering the launch of the ANC's 2004 election manifesto. Although all SADC member states have endorsed the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media, the autonomy of the independent media in a number of states is also very fragile, as events surrounding the closure of the Daily News in Zimbabwe have shown. Threats to the autonomy of the independent media extends to the press in Swaziland, where journalists are frequently threatened when they are critical of leaders; Angola, where Radio Ecclesia, an independent radio station, is often the target of intimidation; and Namibia, where, in March 2001, the state banned all government advertisements from appearing in The Namibian, a newspaper critical of the Namibian government's policies. In fact, there are examples of the autonomy of the media being threatened in almost all SADC states and, furthermore, the weak response to the appeal by MISA against the closure of the Daily News does not bode well for the future of media freedom in the region.

In order to report accurately on issues of malpractice in elections and be able to fulfil their monitoring role, the media require independence from government. According to Dr Kupe, in many Southern African states, 'the government is the greatest threat to electoral independence'. For instance, in Malawi, he argues, political leaders hold economic stakes in the media, which are therefore tied to a particular interest. Without independence from government and politicians, it is impossible for the communication networks to provide all political parties with equal and impartial coverage, and consequently to enable the electorate to make informed decisions when voting.

The media, however, like all other groups that make up civil society, also have a responsibility towards both the public and the government. Civil society organisations often have their own political agendas which can affect the outcome of elections, especially when those organisations are co-opted by government. It is the media that has the added responsibility of being objective, although not neutral. While it is not necessary that the private media remain entirely objective, it is extremely important that they provide a reasonably balanced view of events and avoid sensationalism. In this way, the media will best achieve their roles of informing and educating the public about the elections; monitoring the electoral processes; and strengthening and deepening democracy in SADC.

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