For the last one month the media fraternity has been engaged in a number of activities aimed at the media playing its rightful role in the forthcoming general elections.
I participated in the training programmes organized by the Media High Council for both electronic media and print journalists, which focused on two broad topics: Media and Democracy and Electoral media coverage strategies.
I found the interactive sessions on June 24, 30, intellectually stimulating and wish to share some of them with readers.
I wish to discuss, here, the role of the media in democracy by looking at both concepts globally. Democracy is a form of government in which all people of a particular country vote to elect their representatives.
Those elected govern on behalf of the electorate to whom they are accountable and understandably those elected have to ensure good governance and that human rights are protected, otherwise the voters will hold them to account. The major characteristics of democracy are equality and freedom.
Freedom is guaranteed by legitimized rights and liberties enshrined in the national constitution and other relevant laws. Democracy encompasses the right to hold opinions and association which is best expressed through multi party politics.
The laws also ensure that all citizens are `equal before the law and have equal excess to power .i.e. every citizen has an equal right to compete for elective office and each vote has equal weight. National laws stipulate electoral procedures to ensure that there is regular transfer of power and emphasize the separation of powers among the executive, judiciary and legislature.
The media, on plays a vital role in the democratization process. A certain scholar said “the media is the backbone of democracy” and another one said “democracy without the media is like a vehicle without wheels”.
The latter is an appropriate metaphor in the Rwandan context where the media is not well developed. Our media does not only need wheels but the wheels need to be oiled. To answer that concern, the National Electoral Commission (NEC), the Media High Council ( MHC), the Press House, Association of Rwanda Journalists (ARJ) and Rwanda Editors Forum (REFO) have established an Media center in Kigali city to facilitate both local and foreign journalists to cover presidential elections.
The good news is that the center provides a one stop center where journalists and political candidates will find information and disseminate it quickly and conveniently. A website providing all the information about campaigns and internet connection are some of the facilities available. This center should be maintained after elections, but modified to suit sustainable information management, if it does replicate functions of other institutions.
The Media center story above was a long but necessary diversion from the role of the media in fostering and sustaining democracy. When the media is active and conducts it business professionally, as expected it, vicariously promotes democracy.
The media plays ‘a watch dog role and ’ when they expose errors of commission and mission by those in power, it is promoting democracy because those in power are not angels and are likely to rectify errors when pointed out.
When the media meets its obligations of educating the people about the national situation (political, social and economic) the citizenry will not only benefit from improved service delivery but will also play a democratic role.
An informed citizenry will be capable of electing appropriate representatives and influencing decisions thus participating in the affairs of state.
The media in its agenda-setting role provides diverse view points and unbiased information, offers forum for debate involving citizens and the civil society, mediates in national development projects and contributes to sustainable flow of information.
The media act as ‘wheels for democracy’ where all sheds of opinion are considered for the benefit of common good. This said, however, in reality media practitioners face some constraints and how to be steadfast if they have to succeed as a fourth estate.
Some of the constraints are media ownership and the financial power .Very often media owners in the league with political and financial elites unduly influence the media to their advantage, thus forcing journalists to compromise the requirement of neutrality.
In the discussion, a point of the big advertisers was raised. And my answer then as now is that the media should be guided by the principle of public interest and social responsibility. A journalist should always try to have both sides of the story and do so accurately
During this period of elections, will journalists do their profession and nation proud, by observing principles of journalism?
A few suggestions will suffice; read and understand the law and regulations related to national elections, don’t be partisan in your reporting (exhibit neutrality just like public servants) and stick to professional ethics.