Democratic elections and media responsibility
Reason Wafawarova on Monday
The role of the media in a democratic election is pivotal in that it keeps voters informed about the priorities and programmes of different political parties and candidates. In a true democracy, voters need to know which candidate stands where on which issue, otherwise the exercise of electoral rights stands violated.
It is the role of the media to provide comparative analysis of issues relevant to an election.
For our media, it is indisputable that the regular day-t0-day reporting of events is often biased.
However we must understand always that a free and fair exchange of ideas is crucial, not only to the exercise of electoral rights, but also to the very idea of democratic citizenship.
This means a free and fair election cannot be possible in the absence of a free and fair exchange of ideas.
To this end, every single biased editor is a threat to democracy.
The media needs to establish a fine balance between the interests of democratic citizens and the reality of consumer culture.
It is dangerous to sacrifice the values of democracy at the altar of profits.
One of the fundamental aims of democratic elections all over the world is to provide the electorate with a legitimate opportunity to exercise their political rights and vote for the political parties and candidates of their choice, supporting their social and economic policies, and future priorities and programmes.
President ED Mnangagwa has so far distinguished himself as a democratic enthusiast so willing to see Zimbabwe shining as the democratic jewel of Africa.
This requires a media that is unprejudiced, free and fair.
It also requires the expertise to examine and analyse the political agenda and policies of different political parties and candidates.
Most importantly a free and fair media only benefits an informed citizenry that has respect for facts and is open to human reasoning, logic, and rational persuasion.
It cannot work with a fanatical citizenry driven by emotions of polarisation and idolisation of perceived messianic political characters.
The media must be able to tell truth to power, but we know that the media has often come under serious attack not only in our country, but right across the world.
We saw it with how the media covered the Trump campaign in the United States, and the many accusations of “fake news” that followed.
Questions about media impartiality and objectivity are common, especially during electioneering times.
Given that these days most media outlets are either owned by corporations or operate under other economic interests, it seems almost impossible to decouple the working of media from economic incentives; and I do not wish to do that.
However, the precise argument is that a free and responsible media must have adequate regard for facts and objectivity, and that it should be able to call out to politicians and people in authority for the sake of, or in the name of public interest.
A free media is essential to the functioning of a democratic society and government, and it serves as a bulwark against the use of illegitimate power and coercion.
In 2015, Freedom House listed Bangladesh, Turkey, Burundi, France, Serbia, Yemen, Egypt, Macedonia and Zimbabwe as the worst impacted countries in terms of lack of access to a free press.
The report also said only 13% of people in the world had access to a free press, “where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.”
No doubt, Zimbabwe has since departed this travesty and embarked on a completely new trajectory under President ED Mnangagwa.
France was included on the list because extremist groups in that country were executing and attacking media houses they deemed biased against certain religious views and values.
Radical groups who may be of the opinion that the media is not in line with their privately held religious or political convictions can impede media freedom.
As a columnist who has written for a dozen years now, I know first hand how radical groups can attack your person, your livelihood, or can seek to harm you because your views are not in line with their own convictions.
Sometimes the Press takes sides in political arguments and elections, and deliberately reports inaccurately. Whereas the use of violence from militant groups and individuals borders on insanity and cannot have any rational justification, criticism of the press is not as straightforward.
Critics of the press are not exactly anti-press always.
Most of them believe that the press is crucial to the functioning of a democracy, and they are concerned that it has become involved in politicking, compromising its primary purpose of fact-based reporting of news, and keeping the public informed.
Objectivity is relative, but it cannot be denied that the more there are questions on the media’s objectivity the more the decline of public trust in the media.
It is easier to deal with empirical objectivity than philosophical objectivity. Questions regarding the size of a crowd, distance, weather conditions, what was said when and where are easy to deal with from an empirical perspective, and this is where the media has to show its impartiality and professionalism.
Empirical objectivity may acquire problematic connotations while dealing with political realities relating to ethnicity, race, sex, gender and class differentiations that involve subjective interpretations and input.
For instance, what is suggested as the best way to solve a poverty problem in a particular ethnic group or class of citizens can have multiple answers, each of them claiming their own objectivity.
Political disagreements often fall in this category.
As a result, an individual can easily reject something that is considered objective by another, calling it subjective manipulation of the truth.
Media is often criticised for cherry picking stories they like so they can boost their ratings, stature and economic profits. Resultantly a preferential promotion of particular stories will feed into a particular type of narrative and clientèle.
In Zimbabwe, most people reading Newsday, Daily News or The Standard are more inclined to vote the opposition, while those reading the public media like The Herald are inclined to vote for the ruling party.
Explicitly or implicitly, the private and public media have taken sides in a political argument, and they keep pressing for their side.
This behaviour raises a lot of questions, and the fact that both sides claim integrity and professionalism is at the core of their editorial policies does not make it any easier.
Many in positions of power criticise the press for doing exactly what it is supposed to do: the publication and circulation of information that is relevant to the public.
The functioning of a government and its public officials, including presidents, prime ministers, senators or bureaucrats, may or may not be in the spirit of the law, posing questions of impropriety or unethical behaviour from time to time.
Often politicians seek to undermine unpalatable news reports by simply discrediting the source.
So, a politician and his supporters can just dismiss a whole true story by saying, “who believes The Herald?”, or something like that.
The social preference of familiarity over the idea of change can lead to the domination of the majority and suppression of the minority.
S.J Mill writes: “The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.”
The truth of an opinion has very little to do with its popularity. In fact many popular opinions do not stand rational examination and turn out to be completely false when analysed objectively.
We heard the BBC’s Steven Sucker putting to rational test some views popular among our opposition supporters when he interviewed Nelson Chamisa earlier in the year.
Unfamiliar opinions may pass the truth and rationality test, but that alone will not make them popular. In fact unfamiliar opinions have often been put down by force and social pressure.
We Zimbabweans are coming from an era where censorship of opinion was quite common. Censoring of others’ opinion assumes one’s own infallibility, and that is why we came to a point where the opinion of the former President became higher than Constitution of the country itself, something Jonathan Moyo hailed as “one centre of power.”
There is no such thing as perfect human judgement or opinion. Even true opinion needs scrutiny to remain relevant.
Expression of views will benefit a society more than suppression of the same views, as Mill argues.
He writes: “…though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied” (Mill 2002, 43).
The fundamental distinction between truth and prejudice is obvious. Truth remains open to analysis and criticism, whereas prejudice thrives on blind support and fanaticism. This is what Mill writes about truth; “…even if received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds” (Mill 2002, 43).
Freedom of thought and expression are crucial to human beings as progressive beings, and the freer we are the more we can realise our full potential.
The more we differentiate ourselves from the next person the more we realise our potential. The more we are restricted in being ourselves the less we realise what we are capable of achieving.
Using Mill’s conception of human freedom, I am going to argue that there is a continuum between the freedom of thought and freedom of the press, and that both freedoms are necessary in a democratic society.
Democracy as a form of government implies that in a state, final power and authority reside with the people, and that the governments and public officials can be changed or removed from office after a stipulated time period and as per the process laid down by law.
Democratic elections give sovereignty back to the people by providing them a chance to exercise it. That is exactly what the people of Zimbabwe are going to be doing in July 30.
Citizens of Zimbabwean will wield the final power. However, soon after the election the day-to-day function of government will mean that the elected officials and their delegates exercise the power, not necessarily the people themselves.
Elections restore power to the people, and in turn people use that power elect their representatives and governments. The role of the media in ensuring accountability is crucially essential in this case.
To understand the full implications of the media’s role in democratic elections, it is essential to bear in mind that role of the media has continuously evolved along with historical and cultural factors, conceptions of citizenship, and most importantly with the invention of new tools and technologies.
The means of human communication such as smart phones, the Internet, online connectivity, social media, and computers have transformed the process of information flow, its delivery and consumption.
Social media means more freedom of expression, more sharing of ideas, instantaneous access to news and information; more participation in political discussion with a wider group of people across the world, and also a huge empowerment of people in recording and publicising their own news.
While reliability and authenticity of information on social media remains a huge problem, the reality is that social media has facilitated a lot more democratic participation in politics than traditional media has ever done before.
We need a free and fair media that can educate voters regarding the issues affecting Zimbabwe and help them debate and understand the priorities and programs of various candidates and political parties.
In addition, social media has a tremendous advantage in reaching out to millions of people instantaneously, helping the proliferation of news and views in contemporary democratic societies. However, this instant access to millions of people must come with a responsibility.
Using Mill’s theory of liberty and freedom of the press, I have argued that it is neither possible nor desirable to seek control over publication of views. It does not matter that the views may not meet the known standard of truth and objectivity.
Assuming that what is objective can be a puzzling normative question, I suggest, following Mill, that the questions regarding objectivity in media must be approached with openness, showing regard for known truth and democratic values.
In our case the true democratic value is the pursuit of freedom and happiness as a self-ruling nation whose foundation was laid down by the founding fathers of our national independence.
We all want to live in a happy and free Zimbabwe, and our democracy solely seeks to achieve that noble goal.
Reason Wafawarova is a political writer based in SYDNEY, Australia.