Of guidelines for covering elections [... and the elephant in the room]
Everyone seems to be concerned – and for good reason – that the next election be not only free and fair but also peaceful. Violence has attended political contests in Kenya over the years, with 2007/8 being the worst case in the country’s history. It is for this reason that the Media Council of Kenya brought together stakeholders to create a manual to guide media houses in election coverage.
The booklet, “Guidelines for Election Coverage”, is premised on the view that peaceful elections cannot be discussed without paying attention to the role
of the media. The Fourth Estate came under intense criticism following the last post-election violence. Radio presenter Joshua arap Sang is among four Kenyans standing trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court over alleged involvement in that mayhem.
The decision by the MCK to come up with the guidelines many months before the election is therefore commendable. Media houses will have ample time to reflect and decide on how best to implement the provisions.
“The guidelines are aimed at helping journalists to provide comprehensive, accurate, impartial, balanced and fair coverage of the elections, thus enabling the voter to make informed choices”, the booklet says.
It is gratifying that several media houses and organisations have pledged to adhere to the provisions of the manual. What remains is for Kenyans to hold the media to account on the basis of that commitment.
The downside of the whole project, however, is that “Guidelines for Election Coverage” basically reproduces the provisions contained in the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya, which has been with us for a while now.
The Guidelines, just like the Code, focus on the issues of balance and fairness, corruption (as it affects journalists), gender balance and diversity of voices, conflict-sensitive journalism, opinion polls, equitable coverage, voter education and phone-ins (on radio). Essentially, the canons of professional
journalism remain the same, whether with regard to election coverage or any other issue. So, what was the point of producing another handbook that repeats the same tenets?
Problems with the media arise from non-adherence to professional codes. It is not clear how the MCK will enforce the Guidelines. Media houses are apparently expected to follow the Guidelines out of goodwill.
We are not suggesting that MCK or any other entity should be mandated to clampdown on media houses and journalists who flout the Guidelines, but in the absence of strong peer mechanisms, and in view of the intense competition in the industry, one wonders whether goodwill alone can be sufficient.
It is also a bit surprising that the booklet attempts to give the media a much bigger role in elections than they actually play. It says the media has a duty “to provide election coverage that gives the voter sufficient, accurate and reliable information and knowledge on all-important electoral matters. These include voting, campaign issues, political parties and candidates.”
The reality, however, is that media houses come in different sizes and interests. Big outfits such as Nation Media Group, Royal Media and the Standard Group may have the capacity to provide knowledge on all-important electoral matters, but would it be in their best business interests to do so?
The numerous small media houses may not even be able to cover elections – beyond regurgitating what the papers report. Others, such as those set up by religious groups, may even decide that their sole contribution to the electoral process is through prayers. And they shall be within their rights.
“The media should be able to demonstrate that the main parties or candidates vying for office are given equitable opportunities to be heard or questioned and that minor parties or candidates are not treated unfairly,” the Guidelines say.
EQUAL v EQUITABLE
Now, can media houses realistically be expected to give “equitable opportunities” to parties and candidates? That might stretch a single television news bulletin to four hours. A newspaper might have to run to hundreds of pages.
There are numerous candidates and parties in the contest. Where is the capacity to cover all those political events taking place in the country in a single day?
As for the minor parties, well, they will most likely be trampled by the big ones in the stampede for publicity. How are media houses expected to ensure they are treated “fairly”?
The Guidelines call for integrity among journalists. But the definition of a good journalist is so preachy it doesn’t make sense. A good scribe:
“Is not for sale; does not accept bribes; does not give special favours to any politician or party; does not produce reports skewed towards personal,
party, ethnic or religious positions; does not defame or promote hate, malice or corruption; and does not release unofficial or unverified election results.”
The booklet discourages instant opinion polls, the type one sees on TV every night, on the grounds that they contravene the rules of scientific methodology and analysis.
But those polls have never claimed to be “scientific”, have they? What danger do they pose to anyone? And why should everything be “scientific” to be interesting or even useful? “Results from SMS polls should not be treated as representative scientific results. If broadcasters still want to use them, they should at least indicate the number of respondents while sharing the results, and carefully select representative responses. If an SMS poll has less than 1,000 respondents, broadcasters or publishers should inform the audience that it is not scientific, and the conclusions are not valid and reliable.”
In other words broadcasters should tell their audiences that: “Viewers, this is all hogwash. But we still do it. Don’t ask why.”
Does all this mean the Guidelines are not worth the paper they are printed on? Not quite. Journalists should seriously ponder and do the best they can to apply professional standards in this election season – and every time.
But there is certainly something that the MCK and other stakeholders seem have to forgotten in their preaching to journalists: Journalism in Kenya is not all about journalists. Scribes work in media houses which are businesses and whose owners have umbilical connections to various political interests that they champion openly or subtly from time to time.
While it is quite okay to engage journalists in conversations aimed at bettering their performance, the critical issue of media ownership remains, indeed, the elephant in the room.