Elections and accountability: what role for the media?
On Thursday 27 March ODI and BBC Media Action hosted a debate on elections and accountability, with four panellists from the world of political journalism and communications. The event, which is part of ODI’s ongoing series on elections, also served to launch a series of activities as part of the “Month in Focus” on Political Voice of the Development Progress project.
To properly cover democratic elections we need an unbiased media. However, in Kenya, Egypt, Afghanistan and more, we’ve seen the way press and television can distort events, and generate tension and conflict.
Key talking points
- How do journalists move beyond superficial coverage to grapple with the real issues?
- What is the role of the international media in election coverage?
- How much has social media changed communications?
- What will the future look like for election coverage?
- Fatemah Farag (Director, Welad Elbalad Media Services)
- Michela Wrong (New York Times blogger and journalist, covering Kenyan elections)
- Dawood Azami (BBC reporter)
- James Deane (Director, Policy and Learning, BBC Media Action)
- Chaired by Ishbel Matheson (Director of Communications, ODI)
Fatemah Farag began the discussion by outlining how the mainstream Egyptian media have failed to tell the stories that matter – those that get to the core of issues and would enable the Egyptian people to better understand the electoral processes. For example, the real story underlying elections is patronage, and that needs to be discussed in much greater depth. Describing Welad Elbalad’s approach to community-based reporting, she explained“we need to be accountable to the truth.”
Michela Wrong remembered how the Kenyan media adopted a new “peace at all costs” approach after the notorious 2007 elections. In an attmept to reduce the likelihood of conflict, they started to avoid live broadcasts (or more general coverage) of potentially inflammatory content. In contrast, the 2013 elections were peaceful, but the media self-censorship had other, more problematic effects – for example, helping to fuel the Government’s new “draconian” media law. “If you suppress, muffle or bypass legitimate debates during elections,”she noted, “you could be storing up trouble for the future.”
Dawood Azami described the tremendous growth of the Afghanistan media. Where just 12 years ago there was one national radio station and no television station, today the country has around 500 media outlets with more than 50 national and provincial TV stations, dozens of radio stations and hundreds of publications. They are supported by a regulatory framework which prevents media organisations giving preferential treatment to certain politicians. In his view, this growth in the media in Afghanistan has enabled unprecedented growth in political engagement and the questioning of politicians. Despite this, Dawood noted that “some journalists are using the media as a stick with which to beat those[candidates] that they don’t like.”
For James Deane, the growth of Afghanistan’s media was instructive: with insufficient ad revenue, how will its growth (and the growth of communications sectors elsewhere) be supported? James argued that, in these cases, the media will either contract or fall into the hands of those who can afford to pay for it.
In response to criticisms that the international media tends to get things wrong, or push for a particular angle on a story (e.g. ‘there was no coup in Egypt’), Michela argued the case for international journalists. Their strength, she said, lies in their protection from the kind of risks faced by local journalists, while Dawood added that international media can sometimes bring to light stories that local media are forced to ignore because the content is too sensitive.
Yet are these distinctions between local and international less clear-cut in the age of social media, with Twitter and other platforms available to all?
Michela Wrong argued forcefully that the anonymity of the social media can be deeply problematic because it can encourage irresponsible journalism and the promotion of “sinister” interests. In response, Fatemah countered that there may be two sides to the story, and that anonymity can provide coverage of issues that are otherwise too sensitive.
The panellists also reflected on the difficult role that the media plays in fragile states. Dawood suggested that the media needs to find a fine balance between debate and conflict, while Michela wondered if stability is threatened when media is critical or whether, conversely, self-censorship sows deeper seeds of conflict.
Finally, the discussion touched on what can be done to improve the capacity of media systems to deliver impartial platforms for debate. James and Fatemah both argued that it is not solely about training for journalists – but rather about creating the right environment, with legal protection and other measures to enable journalists to carry out their work.
This event is part of the Development Progress Month in Focus on Political Voice.