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ROAD TO 2024 ELECTIONS OP-ED

Time to remind parties of the Electoral Code and its protection of journalists

Time to remind parties of the Electoral Code and its protection of journalists

The media matter. Journalists matter. It seems that we need to remind the political parties of their obligations under the Electoral Code – without credible media there can’t be credible elections.

Each day closer to voting means tensions escalate and parties continue to campaign.  

Most involved will have had little to no sleep, so we can expect tempers to flare and patience to be thin. 

As tensions rise the opportunities for bad actors to sow mis- and disinformation becomes even more likely. 

It is precisely in these times that political parties need to remind their members, supporters, and staff of the importance of the Electoral Code, the code that all parties have sworn to respect.  

As members of the public – if you receive something outrageous, or that makes you fearful or angry, remember “PP” – Pause before you Post. Have a cup of tea or coffee, check the information against credible sources, and if the post still looks dodgy, report the content to Real411

This week we look at two related issues, the role of media in free and fair elections, and why we all need to condemn attacks on our journalists.

The Electoral Code is clear on the protection of journalists, it states:

“8. Every registered party and every candidate:

(a) Must respect the role of the media before, during and after an election conducted in terms of this Act;,

(b) May not prevent access by members of the media to public political meetings, marches, demonstrations, and rallies; and

(c) Must take all reasonable steps to ensure that journalists are not subjected to harassment, intimidation; hazard, threat, or physical assault by any of their representatives or supporters.” 

(The Electoral Code can be found in the Electoral Act; this is a useful summary.)

Media surround former president Jacob Zuma as he arrives for the MK party manifesto launch at Orlando Stadium in Soweto on 18 May 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Penalties for violating the code can be severe. As highlighted by the independent Electoral Commission (IEC): 

“What happens when you breach the Code of Conduct?

“Any person who breaches the Code is guilty of a criminal offence and can be fined or sent to prison for up to 10 years.

“Political parties that breach the Code can:

  • Be fined up to R200,000;
  • Have to give up the party’s election deposit;
  • Be stopped from working in an area;
  • Have their votes in an area cancelled; and
  • Have their party registration cancelled.” (See here)

It is incredibly alarming that in covering the launch of the uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) Party manifesto launch on 18 May that journalists and photographers were manhandled, shoved and pushed down to the floor. Some women journalists were allegedly kicked while others were verbally assaulted and aggressively treated by people dressed in military attire.  Some of the footage can be seen in a post by News24 Journalist Amanda Khoza

To be clear, most of our journalists tend to run towards hazards and danger as part of their job, and when in high-risk situations they may consider aggressive treatment and shoving light treatment. But the MK Party rally was a highly organised event and, while possibly controversial, there was no suggestion of any risk or imminent harm that would have possibly mitigated media being manhandled and assaulted. 

Why is it so alarming? Firstly, just because those involved sustained mostly mild injuries doesn’t mean it is OK. For women journalists to be assaulted makes women journalists even more vulnerable. 

That the actions were seemingly largely carried out by men in military-like attire – where it is not clear who employs them or on what basis they seek to justify military fatigues – is even more concerning. These actions are a clear breach of the Editorial Code of Conduct. 

It’s important that we note and record these events so that if action is taken, it is more challenging for those involved to deny them or invent conspiracy theories about them.

The attacks also serve to highlight another crucial element. The role of media in determining whether elections are free, fair and credible. Ordinarily the following highlighted factors are necessary for free, fair, credible elections:

  • “Clear legislation, laws and transparency: Elections must be governed by clear laws and regulations. These laws outline provisions for national, provincial and municipal elections. It is essential all such laws and activities are carried out transparently;
  • Voter registration and participation: All eligible citizens should have the right to vote, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or disability;
  • Equal opportunities for political parties: All registered political parties should have an equal right to contest elections, campaign, and hold meetings;
  • Independence of the electoral management body: The electoral commission responsible for managing elections should be independent of the government;
  • Acceptance of election outcomes: It is essential that all key stakeholders accept the outcome of the elections;
  • All political parties must accept the final election results; and
  • Code of Conduct: Political parties participating in elections must adhere to the Electoral Code of Conduct.” – From the IEC and Civics Academy.

It’s curious that, while there is common recognition of the importance of protecting journalists and ensuring they can do their work in Electoral Codes of Conduct, the broader role of media is seldom recognised.  

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) was formed precisely because there was recognition that the media could have a significant impact on almost all electoral processes.  

In 1993, MMA – then the Broadcast Monitoring Project (BMP) –was established to monitor and analyse media coverage on the SABC. There was justifiable concern that given the SABC’s history of being used as a state propaganda machine it could be used by some seeking to subvert the 1994 elections. 

MMA has monitored the coverage of every national, local and provincial elections since 1994. Fast forward 30 years and we are currently monitoring 95 media in the lead-up to the elections. Much has changed in the last three decades. 

Traditional media’s power has been significantly undermined, largely because of the rise of digital media, a deepening trust deficit in democratic institutions and the pandemic-like spread of online harms, including mis- and disinformation. 

It has meant that news media have less influence in framing dominant issues, as these can be set by online influencers, clever use of social media algorithms and bad actors, among others.  

While on some level the media’s power has been diluted, with other media playing a role in shaping narratives – the critical importance of news media remains. 

With so much information out there that we cannot trust or verify, it is imperative that there are sources we can go to for accurate, credible, fair and verifiable information. 

The public can and should be encouraged to go to the IEC site, but we need journalists to offer analysis on party manifestos to unpack what parties are promising and address key issues of concern to us voters.   

Without news media being there people would have to rely on parties telling us their version. While this might be good for parties that are honest and credible, for the majority it means they will put a spin on their views, and make it hard for us to analyse and compare different parties. It also makes it harder to know who is telling the truth. We need news media to help make informed choices.  

It isn’t just the media themselves but the systems around them that play a crucial role in free fair elections. 

Accountability systems – like the Press Council, for print and online media, or the Complaints Compliance Committee within the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa for broadcasting –mean that where media err they can be held accountable and speedily correct their errors. For social media, we have Real411 to help mitigate online harms. The rationale is that these mechanisms show that where media err there are consequences, which helps build trust in their output and information they provide.

By monitoring the media we are able to highlight, challenge and support various claims about media coverage. We often hear complaints about our media being biased – in election periods our media have shown themselves to be overwhelmingly fair. Currently the figure is that around 95% of more than 9,000 news stories are considered fair. 

From: MMA Elections Dashboard as at 19 May 2024

Where our media are performing abysmally currently is in how many female sources are in the news. Usually we hover around the global average of 23% female sources (See the Global Media Monitoring Project), but this year we are the lowest we have been since 2009. There are many reasons why female sources are so low – mostly due to big parties setting the news agenda, and big parties being dominated by men.   

From: MMA Elections Dashboard as at 19 May 2024.

You can see more data on how our media are covering the elections, including tracking party coverage on a near live basis on our dashboard.

While there is no question that we need a credible electoral management body to run the elections, as well as the other elements highlighted above, for our elections to be free, fair and credible, we also need credible, accurate, fair media in the lead-up to elections. While the importance of media coverage is, for example, acknowledged by observer groups, the IEC and other stakeholders, until now there haven’t been clearly established criteria to help the IEC actually shape and determine the role media have played in contributing to, and or undermining or supporting free, fair, credible elections. To address this we will be releasing a report on a Media Performance Review (MPR) after elections. The objectives of it are as follows:

“A credible and pluralistic media landscape is inescapably critical to any democracy. This has been consistently affirmed by our courts and other constitutional bodies: in exchange for the constitutional protection afforded to the press, they in turn bear constitutional obligations to act with vigour, integrity and responsibility. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

“This is all the more heightened in the context of elections where the news media, as primary disseminators of information, are at the frontline of providing credible information, creating platforms for different opinions and opposing views, countering the proliferation of false information and ensuring an engaged and informed electorate.  

“Against this backdrop, the proposed Media Performance Review (“MPR”) is underpinned by two key facets: (i) to safeguard the media’s ability to perform their duties in an enabling environment without undue hindrance; and (ii) to reflect on the manner in which these duties are conducted in accordance with legal and professional ethical standards.” 

As we head to elections we will keep monitoring media’s coverage. We encourage you to play your part, if you see something dodgy, pause and then report to Real411. DM

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William Bird is the director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA). Thandi Smith heads the policy and quality programme at MMA, a partner in the 411 platform to counter disinformation.

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