Effective media participation crucial during elections

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021 17:21 |

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 David Omwoyo

Elections correspond to periods of heightened media coverage and reporting. 

These transitional times are often wrought with competitive language, tensions and occasional violence, sometimes even resulting in violent conflict.  

These dynamics play out on the political arena and are captured by the media.

As Kenya prepares for elections, a lot is expected of the media to enable citizens make informed choices on issues and candidates seeking electoral positions.

The media plays a critical role in democratic processes. This includes setting the agenda, conducting civic education and providing general information on the governance processes. 

Despite the expanding democratic space, challenges have been increasing regarding the media’s role in election coverage.

Safety and protection of journalists is a major area of concern. This, therefore, calls for enhanced collaboration between the regulator, media owners, newsroom managers, individual journalists and, most importantly, law enforcement agencies in  protecting journalists during elections and general adherence to the rule of law.

Secondly, the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism requires scribes to seek and report the truth.

This is, however, sometimes hampered by the bottlenecks involved in obtaining correct, timely and sufficient information.

Such challenges, when allowed to thrive, cause a credibility crisis as it affects the professionalism and quality of stories published by the media.

The third challenge is the lack of credible information which has a negative impact on efforts by the media to push back against misinformation and fake news.

By extension, this exposes journalists to unnecessary attacks and harassment from the public.

All public institutions involved in management of elections including the IEBC, political parties and law enforcement agencies, are bound by Article 35 of the Constitution and the Access to Information Act 2016 which provides for the right of access to information.

Fourth, sometimes the media fails to put in place strong in-house editorial policies to guarantee its own freedom or fails to implement or comply with such policies.

This undermines the co-regulation model that the Kenyan media sector prides itself on.

There is, therefore, need for collaboration among all players in addressing these challenges to ensure everyone plays their role in ensuring a conducive working environment for journalists during elections. 

The Media Council of Kenya has been leading efforts to prepare the media industry for coverage of next year’s elections. 

Stakeholders have converged in Kisumu to interact with the revised Media Council of Kenya election coverage guidelines that have been under review by a 21-member team drawn from the industry.

First developed in 2013, the Guidelines were reviewed in 2017 and have now been updated to reflect critical issues in the prevailing media environment. 

The Election Guidelines serve to remind journalists that it is essential for “the voter to be well informed to form their own opinion freely and make decisions.

Making information available to the public through the media is in itself empowering to audiences and, during an election, to the voters.

To enable the media to adequately play its informative, educative and oversight role, they must access the right information.

The Guidelines are a tool to support journalists to remain professional in providing voters with information on the elections and on technical specifics of the process.

To enable voters to choose a candidate who represents their interests, journalists are expected to provide as much information as possible on the policies and platforms of candidates. 

Article 35 of the Constitution and the Access to Information Act 2016, not only protect citizens’ rights and media to access information held by public bodies but also obligates the latter to disclose all information in their possession, with few exceptions. 

The guidelines also address responsibilities of different players in the media industry as well as State actors engaged in different aspects of an election.

This includes the responsibility of media houses to support their staff with commensurate safety and protection policies.

State and security agencies will be expected to facilitate journalists and media practitioners to cover elections without fear of intimidation or violence.

The guidelines seek a better working approach between the media and State agencies.      

The adoption of the Guidelines will pave way for training and capacity building of journalists and media practitioners across the county on their role, rights and obligations in election coverage. 

Media houses should set high standards by impeccable coverage of the 2022 elections. — The writer is the CEO of the Media Council of Kenya —[email protected]

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