Media freedom essential during upcoming 2015 African elections

22 Jan 2015

As Zambia, Lesotho and Tanzania go to the polls in 2015, the media have a key role to play in ensuring fair and transparent elections with informed voters.

It is well established that freedom of expression and political debate is fundamental to free, fair and genuinely democratic elections. In order to play their role, the media need both access to information and the freedom to freely and safely communicate their findings. They act as a watchdog, ensuring greater transparency and accountability during the election process, providing citizens with information on their candidates, party policies and the elections process, enabling them to make informed decisions when they cast their votes or engage in public debate. The media are essential to this process, as they are the main source of information for the population. The media also have a responsibility to produce accurate, professional and impartial reports.

Last year there were several disappointing incidents that infringed upon the media’s freedom of expression during election periods. In Namibia, an NBC team was threatened by an opposition party member and had to endure a tongue lashing by Namibia Economic Freedom Fighter’s leader. On both occasions the team was accused of promoting the ruling party, and were insulted. The arrest of Botswana’s Sunday Standard editor, Outsa Mokone in the lead up to elections, whilst not directly related to media coverage of the 2014 elections, undoubtedly caused a chilling effect on the media. It was the first time that sedition laws were used against journalists in Botswana. Sedition laws, by their very nature, are designed to extinguish freedom of expression. Reporter Edgar Tsimane, who wrote the story that led to Mokone’s arrest, remains in exile in South Africa.

On Tuesday, Zambia held Presidential Elections following the death of Michael Chilufya Sata on 28 October 2014. The new President Elect, Edgar Lungu, will serve the remaining 19 months of Sata’s 5-year term.

Lesotho will hold General Elections on 28 February 2015, after mediation in the aftermath of the 2014 political crisis. Following political tensions and the suspension of the National Assembly over a controversial change of the head of the army, an attempted coup d’etat forced Prime Minister Tom Thabane to flee the country. SADC oversaw mediation that resulted in a call for an early election. The elections will be held two years earlier than planned. During the first few months following the decision to hold early elections the army made some attempts to threaten radio stations and individual presenters. MISA Lesotho reported that Harvest FM radio station received a letter from Lt Gen Tlall Kamoli ordering the station not to mention his name or report anything about him. There have also been reports of unprofessional and biased coverage by broadcasters.

Tanzania is scheduled to hold a Constitutional Referendum on 30 April, followed by General Elections in October.

MISA’s role in free and fair elections

As southern Africa’s leading organisation for the promotion of freedom of expression, MISA has long been involved in advocating for free and fair elections which uphold the principles of freedom of expression and access to information.

In 2012, in preparation for elections in southern Africa, MISA and several partners convened southern African journalists and Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) to develop regional guidelines for media coverage of elections in southern Africa. In addition, MISA facilitated platforms for media and EMBs to share their respective communication and information needs, and to discuss concrete proposals to improve communication between EMBs and the media.

In October 2014, MISA convened a mission to observe the conduct of the media and electoral bodies during the Botswana 2014 parliamentary and local government elections. MISA’s network of Chapters have also played an active role in monitoring freedom of expression violations in their respective countries during election periods. They have also advocated for governments to uphold journalists’ safety and rights to freedom of expression and access to information in their election reporting.

MISA works from the premise that certain basic pre-conditions are required to enable free, open and democratic elections. These are:

  • Measures to create an environment in which a pluralistic media sector can flourish.
  • The repeal of laws that unduly restrict freedom of expression and protection against liability for disseminating statements made directly by political parties or candidates.
  • Effective systems to prevent threats and attacks against the media.
  • Rules against discrimination in the allocation of political advertisements.
  • Any regulatory powers to be exercised only by independent bodies
  • Clear obligations on public broadcasters, including to inform the electorate, to respect strictly rules on impartiality and balance, and to grant equitable access to all parties and candidates.
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