By Justin Mahlahla
The media plays a crucial role in informing the electorate so that they exercise their Constitutional right to participate in electoral processes, outgoing Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Commissioner, Joyce Laetitia Kazembe has said.
In a presentation to Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation journalists attending a media training workshop in Chinhoyi on Friday, Ms Kazembe explained the role of the media in promoting democratic elections in the country.
“Note that a free and fair election is not only determined by the freedom to vote and the knowledge of how to cast a vote: it is also highly determined by the level and process of popular participation. Herein, prospective voters engage in public debate on issues of public interest.
“The assumption is that they have adequate information about, among other issues, key electoral issues and policies, the contesting political parties and respective candidates and their standpoints. It is also important to understand the election process itself, in order to make informed choices: herein lie one of the key players – the media, crucial watchdogs to democratic elections, expected to safeguard the transparency of the whole electoral process,” she noted.
Commissioner Kazembe said while the Zimbabwean Constitution and the Electoral Act provide guidelines on the conduct of the media during elections, the legal provisions should be seen in the context of further buttressing already existing professional standards of media and election reporting.
“Provisions of the Electoral Act as read with Statutory Instrument 33 of 2008 should be seen in this light and context – giving contesting parties fair coverage of their political activities. This act, among others, facilitates deeper scrutiny of the proffered policies by voters, thus affording them the opportunity to make informed political choice.”
She said the media in Zimbabwe, like anywhere else in the world, provide a very important channel of information between the contestants and the voters.
“By providing such an arena or platform for public debate and scrutiny, and informing the public of the policies of candidates and political parties, the media enable voters to judge for themselves and make informed decisions when they cast their votes. The ability of voters to make an informed choice is one of the key tenets of a democratic election,” she said.
She added: “Apart from reporting on the performance of incumbents, providing a platform for debate among candidates, allowing candidates to communicate their message to the electorate, and reporting on campaign developments, the role of the media should, must, include informing voters on how to exercise their political rights, how to monitor the whole election process, including election-day proceedings, and how to catalogue the results of the poll or other electoral activity.”
Commissioner Kazembe urged the jornalists to participate in conflict management by playing a facilitatory role of fostering peace and tolerance among contesting parties and supporters through clarifying the facts on issues of public concern, taking objective and positive positions in trying to resolve electoral disputes and understanding the legitimate needs and concerns raised by various electoral stakeholders and available options and alternatives for the public good.
She said irresponsible journalism has costs which include fueling ethnic hatred, anarchy, hate speech and violence, as witnessed in the aftermath of the 2007 presidential elections in Kenya.