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Reporting on Elections in Africa
Honing the skills of Uganda’s 4th Estate

ImageAccording to Edmund Burke, there were three Estates running the country in his time: the priesthood, the aristocracy and the Commons, all of whom could be found within Parliament.  The fourth Estate, he said, could be found in the Reporter’s Gallery but was, however, “more important than they all”. 

Burke’s opinion of the power of the media and its impact on democracy remains true today.The mass media is often regarded as the guardian of democracy, defending as it does the right to free speech and the public interest.  This fourth power is responsible for checking and balancing the three democratic powers of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary and is critical to the security and stability of a nation, particularly the developing democracies of Africa.

The media has a significant role in the run up to and during elections.  Prompted by the increasing challenges for the media in Africa, the Uganda-based Foundation for African Democracy (FAD) and the Human Resources and Training organisation, Interims for Development, developed and held a media training programme in Kampala in July 2006 entitled “Challenges of Elections Reporting in Africa”.

Sponsored by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Working Plus, a UK based training and skills organisation, the two-day programme provided an opportunity for over 40 media practitioners in Uganda to come together to share experiences of reporting in the recent elections in Uganda and to address the challenges of promoting and sustaining democratic institutions in Africa through responsible reporting. 

“Helping Voters to Make Intelligent Decisions”

Opening the programme with a review of the state of Uganda’s media, pioneer journalist, Dr Peter Mwesige, stressed the indispensable role that the country’s media plays.  “The news media is not like any other business.  They are the main sources of information for a majority of the people and they play an important watchdog role,” he said.

Mwesigwe, the founder of Uganda’s Crusader newspaper and now head of Mass Communications at Makerere University, observed that in elections, “the news media are expected to play the role of thought stimulation, explaining and informing in order to help voters make intelligent decisions on the basis of knowledge.” 

ImageHe urged the participants to go beyond personalities at election time and to frame stories “in a way that interrogates the issues, verifies campaign claims and promises and analyses candidate records.” Noting that the information revolution and commercial considerations have profoundly changed the environment in which today’s editor works, Mwesige suggested that today’s diversity of news sources has put new market pressures on journalists and has adversely impacted on the content and quality of journalism practiced.

“The growing power of marketing in the media business has in most cases meant that a lot more money is now invested in market research, brand audits, promotions and the like, than in good journalism,” he commented.  “There is little investment in the kind of journalists that can penetrate the complex issues of our times.  How can we have quality journalism without quality journalists?” 

Analysing the recent elections held in Uganda, Mwesige described the overall tenor of reportage as having “little analytical rigour, investigative depth, insight, context, synthesis and perspective.”  He called on news organisations to introduce more mentoring programmes as, he said, “younger journalists need senior colleagues who can pat them on the back, point out gaps in their stories and generally inspire them to do better.”  The challenges are many, he said, “but we can get it right.”

Reporting from Conflict Zones

ImageNew Vision’s Senior Reporter, Emmy Allio, is a veteran of reporting from violence prone areas.  Leading a lively session covering safety guidelines for reporters, Allio highlighted the pressures on journalists during political and electoral campaigns.  “Electoral campaigns are unpredictable,” he said.  “It requires plodding, working, getting ready for something that may not happen and, most of all, responding with fast action when something important takes place.”

Allio has covered conflicts and wars in Sudan, Rwanda and the DRC for publications including The Monitor, the Daily Topic and The New Vision in Uganda.  He cautioned the participants that media houses have been slow to develop conflict reporting skills training, often gambling on which journalist to deploy when conflict erupts.

Allio shared a number of basic rules and tips from the Peru guidelines, a set of internationally acclaimed standards for reporters on dangerous assignments that was formulated at a gathering of the Inter-American Press Association in Lima. 

“You are more important than the story,” he said.  “No story is worth your life.  If you are clearly threatened, get out as fast as you can.”  Touching on the key rules and guidelines, he advised the media present never to carry a weapon, to learn about the country they are covering and know the terrain, resist abuse and never masquerade as someone else.   He warned against working for intelligence agencies and to avoid reporting from both sides of a conflict, if possible. 

“It is not just dangerous, but also unprofessional to cover elections from only one side.”

Allio recommended that journalists covering conflict areas should always carry a press card and a white flag and mark their car to indicate their profession.  “Keep an active mind regarding risks,” he cautioned.  “In dangerous situations, all you have are your wits and knowledge of the area.  Your editor and the Geneva Convention (which covers you in war situations) normally can’t help you.  Never antagonise your contacts in war zones or criticize the person who is responsible for your security.”

Taking a partisan position can also put a journalist at risk, said Allio.  “Avoid taking part in arguments and heated debates concerning elections.  Balance your coverage.  It is not just dangerous, but also unprofessional to cover elections from only one side.”  Providing balanced coverage along ethnic and tribal lines is critical during election coverage and he highlighted the need to mention ethnicity or religion only where it is relevant to the story.  Truth comes in many forms as Allio pointed out.  “Provide context, not just coverage of events.  Factual accuracy in a story is no substitute for the total truth.” 

Allio has covered various forms of conflict since 1992 and during his session shared some of his trials and experiences with those present.  “Surviving elections and war is about courage, wit, knowledge and professionalism.  It is incumbent upon the individual journalist to equip himself with relevant knowledge about the situation and handle stories with scrupulous professionalism.”

Elections in Uganda

Since the liberalisation of Uganda’s airwaves in 1993, the media has blossomed and there are now over a hundred radio stations around the country.  In February 2006 Uganda held its first national presidential and parliamentary elections under a multiparty political system in 20 years. This historical landmark proved a stern test for the role of the media as the provider of strategic information and a forum for political debate.

Commenting on the ethics of media reports and the requirements to observe the principles of truth, accuracy and fairness, Adolf Mbaine of Makerere University observed that ethics posed a big challenge to the media, “as journalists across various spectra often see ethics as an annoying inconvenience.”

The Uganda Bureau Chief of the East African newspaper, Daniel Kalinaki, described his coverage of the recent elections in Uganda as “three months of frenetic, inspiring, back-breaking and professionally-rewarding work.”

Using Opinion Polls

ImageAddressing the session on how journalists should cover opinion polls, Kalinaki spoke of the challenges of undertaking, analysing and presenting polls during such a charged period.

At the time the Associate Editor (Politics) of the Daily Monitor, Kalinaki’s paper commissioned three polls prior to the elections.  “We found out, right from the first poll, that none of the parties was willing to accept a poll result that did not put them far ahead of the competition”, he said, pointing out that their credibility had been sustained by using a transparent methodology and naming the pollsters.

Kalinaki touched on how factors such as sample size, demographics and transparency can affect polling and the importance of reporting the stories behind the figures.  From his own experience, he noted that polls do not, under normal circumstances, considerably change people’s voting intentions but that journalists should look at opinion polls as tools to inform their readers and help them make educated decisions.

“Opinion polls, assuming they are free of bias, are one way through which journalists can provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing,” he added.  “In spite of the difficulties, the public opinion survey, correctly conducted, is still the best objective measure of the state of the views of the public.”

Keeping Democracy Accountable

The two-day programme was closed by the Chairman of the Uganda Electoral Commission, Dr. Badra Suleiman Kiggundu, who thanked the organisers and urged the participants to undertake some critical self-evaluation.

“The role of the media in the dissemination of news is critical for an accountable and sustainable democracy,” he said.  “The recent elections were a new chapter and a challenge for Uganda.” 

ImageDr. Kiggundu, whose organisation is responsible for the organisation and conduct of free and fair elections in the country, reminded those present that elections are processes that go beyond polling day and that the media should reflect that.  He urged the delegates to remember the points raised in the training programme and that despite the pressures they face, “when you leave here, please don’t lose steam.”

We’ve learned a lot; what to do and what not to do.”

Feedback from participants at the end of the intensive programme was extremely positive.  “I’ve really benefited a lot from it,” said Radio One Reporter Zaida Ramadhan.  “We’ve really gained an insight into a lot of areas and next time we’ll be well equipped and know what to do and what not to do.”

Image“The event was a great success,” confirmed Vincent Kalimire, Chief Executive Officer of the Foundation for African Democracy, co-organisers of the event.  “The level of discussion and interaction was high and participants had a rare opportunity to learn from experienced practitioners in their field.”            

In Africa today, the media practitioner wields enormous power and, with the ability and opportunity to inform and to influence people, what they write or say is often what counts.  As Edmund Burke said, “it matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.”

For further information about this article or media training in Africa, contact editor@reconnectafrica.com

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