By Joseph Balise
In a 2015 policy paper titled “Media Assistance and Elections: Toward an integrated Approach”, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) succinctly enunciates that: “the media serves critical roles throughout the electoral process. In addition to promoting public debate and educating citizens, the media monitors the integrity of the process and can be a primary vehicle for accountability demands”.
The policy paper observes that social media have made it easier to create, share and consume stories. Perhaps more than ever before, the media have the potential to significantly impact perceptions and behaviour during elections.
The paper further warns that without a more consistent, long-term and sustained approach to media development, election assistance providers risk marginalizing the public’s primary means through which to voice the direct the trajectories of their countries’ democratization processes.
In the current age of new technologies, a failure to holistically integrate all media into the electoral process could render traditional electoral actors such as electoral management bodies (EMBs) and international assistance providers ÔÇô irrelevant in broader discussions.
The desk research and personal interviews report identifies and addresses the main challenges to the integration of the media into election assistance programmes. The report’s main findings indicate that the primary challenges to the integration of media into electoral assistance programmes are related to serious ambiguity regarding the definition of media and its place with democratization work, the political sensitivities of the host countries, and a lack of advance planning and coordination.
The policy paper in executive summary implores that as the discourse around media support develops, it will be important for actors “to make more proactive use of the electoral cycle approach and to conceive of media assistance as a long-term engagement. Going forward, it will also be critical to think of the media as one partner in a complex web of election-related stakeholders, each of which uses (and is used by) the media to inform, educate and communicate. Greater collaboration with media development specialists, emerging social media experts and other electoral assistance providers will also help enrich media development programmes by making them more responsive to elections and democratization work”.
Several studies have explored the role of the media in the development of political knowledge and one meta-analysis of 90 individual studies found that reading newspapers, watching the news, listening to radio etc has a positive effect on voter turnout. Consumption of political news can also impact voter preference and political debate programmes have been shown to contribute to the public long-term political engagement. Studies have also demonstrated that political debates influence perceptions of candidates, candidate preference and intention to vote.
The media are critical for ensuring EMB accountability. One study found that independent media provide a ‘compensating check on electoral conduct if EMB independence is low’ and the media also check manipulative politicians. Indeed, ‘a free press impedes efforts to “brainwash” the electorate’.
Unfortunately, the large number of such studies focus on established democracies, and it is difficult to know whether these findings apply to the developing world. There is, however, growing academic interest in exploring case studies from emerging democracies.
Another area that is receiving increasing attention in the world of academia is social media and political participation, especially the relationship between the use of social media and increased public engagement in politics. It is important to recognize at the outset that social media is not a panacea for low levels of civic engagement. In fact, a debate is raging among political scientists and development practitioners over the potential and actual role of social media as a channel for political engagement and a force for democratization. For instance, several years after the Arab spring, scholars are still divided over the extent to which social media was used to drive political mobilization during these events. There is, however, one issue on which there is widespread agreement: social media does matter, and it cannot be ignored.
There is also clear evidence to suggest that social media can increase the potential to directly communicate with specific groups within society, including marginalized and disenfranchised sectors. Across the board, women and young people are heavy users of social media. With the right strategies, backed up by a good understanding of these channels and commitment to dedicating the required resources, civic and political engagement initiatives can effectively target the audiences through social media to create a meaningful conversation and potentially increase political participation.
A critical question arises as to where the media exactly fits in the broader world of democracy, governance and elections. Should it be regarded and approached as a separate, stand-alone institution, or should it be treated as part and parcel of elections programming, in much the same way as voter registration, political party development and electoral technology?
The answer is complex and get to the heart of the problem, for while the media is ‘the fourth estate’ and therefore a political institution in its own right, it is also a core aspect of, and actor within, the electoral process. It is thus true that it is important to promote a free and independent press through the development of basic journalism skills, but it is also critical to ensure that journalists are equipped with the basic knowledge and technical know-how to effectively report on elections, which can be politically sensitive.
In the long term, the goal should be to have a highly skilled and independent press corps that has the wherewithal to effectively investigate and analyse a broad variety of issues, including those related to development. For now, however, it may be necessary and practical to strike a balance between media development and media for development.
Regardless of which electoral assistance choose to adopt, it is critical to integrate media support projects into the electoral cycle. On a fundamental level, the media is the vehicle through which all actors disseminate information to the public and consume each other’s’ news, and depending on its portrayal of an event, organization or individual, the media can make or break reputations.
The policy paper aptly defines the media as promoters of accountability in and of themselves. Precisely because they are connected to other stakeholders, who use them to disseminate messages, the media have the power and connections to hold those stakeholders accountable. The media are at the centre of a wide range of interconnected actors. Therefore, it is critical for elections assistance programmes to incorporate the media into all aspects of their work and throughout the electoral cycle.
The paper further notes that as a result of the ambiguity regarding the media’s place in democratization and development paradigms, media support is not consistently integrated into elections work. Where it does, it tends to be characterized by several problems, which can be grouped into the following categories: lack of clarity regarding what is considered to be part of the media and where the media fits within the democratization work; political sensitivity of host countries or EMBs; and logistical challenges related to advance planning and coordination with partners on the ground.
After thoroughly dealing with the prevailing problems of media integration into election assistance programmes, IDEA recommends promotion of empirical research, with both the academic and policy communities, on the media’s impact on the electoral process. Such research should advance a theory of a change that offers a detailed explanation of the casual pathway from media interventions to specific development and democratization goals; staffing decisions should take media relations into account. Electoral support project providers and media development organizations should hire social media experts 9to help stakeholders develop and maintain a social media presence) and senior media experts who have a deep understanding of the role of the media beyond its use as a public relations tool.
It is further recommended that were people may not have access to electricity or where there is a high rate of illiteracy, non-traditional formats, such as street theatre, may be the most effective way to reach people. There are contexts in which some constraints on the media are necessary, and even useful. Media support in post conflict environments and /or divided societies should help ensure that the legal safeguards and codes of conduct are in place to guard against hate speech. Support should also focus on strengthening outlets and individuals that are working to be fair and impartial.
Election-related assistance projects must be re-configured to reflect the electoral cycle approach. They should be planned as early as possible, and media components should be long-term, based on substantial and detailed contextual analysis.
In order to effectively support the media, it is important to enhance coordination between electoral assistance programmes to promote mutual understanding of their priorities, goals and work plans.