Some empirical studies have shown that the media can play an indispensable role in proper functioning of a democracy for both developed and developing countries. Discussion of the media’s functions within electoral context often focus on their ‘watchdog’ role: by unfettered scrutiny and discussion of the successes and failures of candidates, governments and electoral management bodies, the media can inform the public of how effectively they have performed and help hold them to account.
The just-ended presidential elections in the United States of America proved that even in the advanced democracies the media’s critical roles are still essential for supporting electoral institutions to organise credible elections. In Ghana, the media’s watchdog role over conduction of elections during the last two decades has been well documented. Apart from general roles of educating, informing and entertaining the public, the media have other roles which promote and enable full public participation in elections and democracy. Some direct democratic roles of the media include:
- Educating voters on how to exercise their democratic rights;
- Reporting on the development of an election campaign;
- Providing a platform for the political parties and candidates to communicate their message to the electorate;
- Providing a platform for the public to communicate their concerns, opinions and needs to the parties/candidates, the EMB, government; and to other voters, and to interact on these issues;
- Allowing the parties and candidates to debate with each other;
- Reporting results (not calling results) and monitoring vote-counting;
- Scrutinising the electoral process itself, including electoral management, in order to evaluate fairness of the process, its efficiency and its probity;
- Providing information that, as far as possible, avoids inflammatory language, helping to prevent election-related violence.
Generally, though the media are not the sole source of information for voters, in a world dominated by mass communications (enabled by the new technology-based media), it is increasingly the media which determine the political agenda – even in less technologically-developed countries. A report by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies put it this way:
“The media play a major role in keeping the citizenry abreast of current events and raising awareness of various issues in any society. It also has an extremely significant impact on the public’s views and way of thinking. The media is the primary means through which public opinion is shaped, and at times manipulated. If this is the media’s role, then in the normal course of events it becomes even more vital during exceptional periods – among which are electoral junctures, when the media becomes a primary player.
“Elections constitute a basic challenge to the media, putting its impartiality and objectivity to the test. The task of the media, especially national media outlets, is not and should not be to function as a mouthpiece for any government body or candidate. Its basic role is to enlighten and educate the public and act as a neutral, objective platform for the free debate of all points of view.”
Across the world (including Ghana), the several ways in which media promote democratic electoral processes generally fall into one of the following categories:
- Media as a transparency watchdog
- Media as a campaign platform
- Media as an open forum for debate and discussion/public voice
- Media as a public educator
I am discussing the independence of media from political and monetary influence in light of the impending general elections in Ghana (next week, December 7, 2020). As in previous elections, the tendency for some ‘single purpose’ media to call the results ahead of the Electoral Commission for obvious reasons is worth noting. More worrying is the threat of social media and self-styled ‘citizen journalists’ trying to foment trouble by peddling ‘fake news’ through fake online media.
In contemporary media studies, ‘fake news’ has become a major source of worry for both academics and professionals. Though the new media have become important tools for campaigning, voter education, policy debate, opinion polling and scrutiny of elections, their decentralised, interactive and user-driven modes of operation are raising concerns over their disregard for media ethics.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ words characterise a principle that is now universally accepted in international law. It states that: “The exercise of freedom of expression in a democracy has little meaning if it can only be exercised on an individual level. Freedom of expression is not only about what you can tell your neighbour – or hear from him or her. Crucially, it is also to do with the expression of facts and opinions and receiving of information through the media”.
The European Court of Human Rights upheld this principle when it concluded that: “Freedom of the press affords the public one of the best means of discovering and forming an opinion about the ideas and attitudes of their political leaders. An independent media gives politicians the opportunity to reflect and comment on the concerns of public opinion; it enables everyone to participate in the free political debate which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society”. Therefore, “It is incumbent on [the press] to impart information and ideas on matters of public interest which the public also has a right to receive. Were it to be otherwise, the press would be unable to play its vital role of ‘public watchdog’.”
Several studies have shown that a country’s portfolio of media ownership is likely to have a significant impact on a range of electoral issues – including citizens’ access to civic and voter education, and the extent to which elections are covered in a balanced and fair manner devoid of ‘soft control’. Soft control is often used to describe the practice of political heavyweights and millionaires using their resources to commoditise news or set the agenda for political discourse.
In the United States, for instance – where private media is predominantly owned by mega corporations, access to media occurs through paid advertising. Similarly, Finland has a far freer approach to paid political advertising than most European countries. Unlike its neighbours, Finland provides no free airtime on public media and allows contestants to purchase unlimited private airtime.
Conversely, countries such as Britain and Denmark with a strong tradition of public ownership of the media do not allow paid political advertising at all, and instead have a system of free direct access broadcasts on private broadcasters. In Ghana, while state media is shrinking in power, the consolidation of media by powerful politicians and businessmen has become the norm. This trend has the tendency of influencing gatekeeping and media agenda-setting on issues of public interest. As indicated earlier, ‘soft control’ through advertisements and the perceived bribery of journalists to toe political lines is an emerging trend on the media landscape.
Thus, media ownership has a definite bearing on fact-based elections coverage, political coverage or the slant that media give to news. In our revolutionary past, state-owned media were under direct state or ruling party control and often favoured the incumbent party – until the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the 90s that compelled the state-owned media to provide fair and balanced coverage to all political parties or candidates.
In the current dispensation, privately-owned (whether corporate or otherwise) media may be independent but may also be serving the political interests of their proprietors. The commercialisation or commoditisation of news notwithstanding, it is true that the right to diversity and balance within media ownership is key to nurturing democratic processes and promoting free and fair elections.
The will of the people
“The rules of democracy and democratisation dictate that the will of the people shall be the basis of government authority. And this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage, and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures,” says Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the same Declaration covers the right to freedom of opinion and expression: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
These two rights – to elections and to expression – come into play during polls, and call attention to their linkage. In democracies, voters should be enabled to set the political agenda and to cast their ballots freely – and on a solid understanding of the contestants’ political records and programme pledges. Election outcomes and their aftermath are critically affected by political discourse and communications, including the media’s role in relation to the polling process.
In many dispensations, attempts by political actors to control media in elections continue to complicate the democratic role of journalism at a time when it is already weakened economically. So, the tendency for some media and journalists to dance to the tunes of political financiers is something Ghanaians must watch. As indicated earlier, the media and journalists have the inalienable right only to report the will of the people in an election – and not to promote the agendas of self-seeking politicians. Of course, journalists in many countries, including Ghana, have been threatened and continue to work under depressive conditions.
The UN Human Rights Council has expressed alarm at “instances in which political leaders, public officials and/or authorities denigrate, intimidate or threaten the media; which increases the risk of threats and violence and undermines public trust in the credibility of journalism”. At the global celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2018 in Ghana, the UN and regional rapporteurs on freedom of expression expressed strong concern about “the resurgence of political threats to media independence such as […] harsh attacks which aim to stigmatise and discredit the media”.
In light of the media’s critical role in promoting democracy and good governance, international development organisations have been investing in media development. USAID, for instance, considers the media as a civil society and has been supporting the media’s role in decentralisation, anti-corruption, and citizen participation in the policy process. USAID has also been supporting the media through promoting an enabling environment suitable for press freedom and to keep the judiciary in check. In the view of USAID, World Bank and the UNDP, free and fair elections conducted through transparent processes require a media sector that gives candidates equal access, and reports the relevant issues in a timely, objective manner.
According to USAID, within the context of supporting democratic development, the goal of media development focuses on empowering the media to move from a position that is directed or even overtly controlled by government or private interests to one that is more open and has a degree of editorial independence that serves the public interest.
The notion is that independent media organisations and credible journalists enable citizens to have access to information they need to make informed decisions and participate in society. Thus, a media sector supportive of democracy should be one that has a degree of editorial independence, is financially viable, has diverse and plural voices, and serves the public interest.
The public interest is defined as representing a plurality of voices through both a greater number of outlets and through the diversity of views and voices reflected within one outlet. These views are expressed in the democratisation and election systems as indicated by the 1992 Constitution. Thus, the media, journalists and power-seekers have no option other than to accept the verdict of the people – granted that the elections are free and fair. References
Harding-Smith, R. 2011. “Media Ownership and Regulation”, In Australia, Centre For Policy Development Issue Brief:
Holtz-Bacha, C & Lee Kaid, L. 2006. Political Advertising. In International Comparison.
Moehler, DC & Singh, N. 2009. “Whose News do you trust? Explaining trust in private versus public media in Africa”, Political Research Quarterly 64 no. 2:1
Murphy, PD. 2007. “Media and Democracy in the Age of Globalization”, SUNY Press.
Terrazas, M. 2011. “Crowdsourcing Democracy through Social Media,” Georgia Tech College of Computing.
UNESCO report on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development 2017/2018. UNESCO: Paris. 2018.
(***The writer is a Development and Communications Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate. All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organisation(s). (Email: [email protected]. Mobile: 0202642504/0243327586