Elections and media coverage

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Voters queue to cast their votes in elections in Mbare, Harare, early Wednesday July 31, 2013. Zimbabweans voted Wednesday in the elections that will determine the future of longtime President Robert Mugabe, who has denied allegations of vote-rigging despite concerns about the credibility of the polls. (AP Photo)

By Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu

ZIMBABWE is presently in the middle of a harmonised national elections campaign and various media cover a wide range of relevant activities, in addition to expressing divergent opinions on the political parties, polices and individual leaders involved.
Some organisations may feel that some of the media are either reluctant to cover or that they deliberately misrepresent them.
We are referring to news and opinions about the numerous political organisations and their respective leaders.
Advertisements and advertorials about the organisations cannot be distorted as they are products of the actual actors and not journalists.
Zimbabwe’s Constitution and relevant electoral laws require the media to accept and publish or broadcast such advertisements or advertorials.
In such circumstances, the concerned organisation or organisations may feel that news and opinions they require to be known by the public is being suppressed or distorted by some or all the media if it is left entirely to journalists to handle.
Meanwhile, some sections of the media may hold the view that some of the leaders and policies of what the leaders call their political parties are not newsworthy as the parties exist only in name because they are memberless.
Some professional journalists may wrongly, or rightly, hold an opinion that some of the 23 presidential candidates are merely light-headed limelight-seekers who should not be taken seriously by respectable media.
These leaders need to bear in mind that for a news medium to be interested in either an individual or an organisation, there has to be an obvious element of credibility in that leader or organisation.
The well-known old adage: ‘News is when a man (person) bites a dog but not when a dog bites a man (person),’ is rather misleading in that the status of the man (person) involved in the incident determines whether the happening is of interest and value to the readers, viewers or listeners.
If a king or queen, village head or school headmaster, Member of Parliament or a highly popular sportsman, businessman or renowned hunter is bitten by a dog, that would certainly be of interest to, first and foremost, the local community and also many people at large, all because of the social, cultural, political or economic status of that person.
If, however, the individual is some rather obscure, insignificant or unimportant person, it would be of very little interest to any journalist unless the dog has some very unique health characteristic such as rabies.
Similarly, a little known or insignificant person who pops up at an electoral court to register as a presidential candidate cannot attract serious positive journalistic interest.
The right to be covered by the media has been arguably associated with the freedom of the media, a concept that has not been thoroughly analysed in many Third World countries.
Freedom of the media, formerly known as ‘freedom of the press’, originally meant the freedom to establish and maintain a news medium, and of journalists to move from place to place, or to contact whomsoever to get information about or comment on issues of interest and value to the public.
It also refers to the constitutional or legal right for the media to exist and operate without let or hindrance.
An aspect of the traditional ‘freedom of the press’ that is lightly commented on and not deeply analysed is how that concept affects individuals, communities and organisations covered by the media.
Some of these are cultural activities such as religious organisations and leaders, social personnel such as medical and educational workers, political activists and groups involved in economics and politics.
It is quite common for some of these various individuals and social groupings to complain about what they perceive to be inadequate coverage by some or all of the print as well as electronic media.
They feel the media deny them their right to be heard, seen and thus, to be known.
In many modern states, there are several media companies each of which owns a number of either print or electronic media.
Each medium is produced and administered on the basis of a document called ‘a profile’, which outlines the medium’s objectives and target readership, viewership or audience, depending on the type of medium.
The media owners’ aim is not just to make money by publishing or broadcasting news, opinions and advertisements, it is also to participate in the moulding or creating of a desirable socio-cultural and politico-economic order.
In countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Britain, the tendency among the print media is to target social or cultural classes, expressing their opinions and aspirations.
These are represented by various political parties such as Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, Socialists and Liberals, among others.
In Zimbabwe, we do not have a clearly defined political ideological situation. The situation is confounded by the current grouping of various parties as a temporary electoral convenience. They are guided by a wish to be in power rather than an ideological objective.
The country’s numerous political parties do certainly add to the confusion among the people and journalists as to what each of those parties stands for. With the exception of about two or three, most of the presidential candidates are, by and large, more of job-seekers and the covering of their election campaigns would not make them less ludicrous.
It has been said that the large number of political parties registered in Zimbabwe shows how democratic the country is.
Some commentators may argue that the number reflects individual greed for power and political confusion, not democratic tendencies.
Zimbabwe is divided into 10 administrative provinces comprising 57 districts, all of which carry a total of almost
15 million people.
If we were to share the parties among the provinces, we would get 13,3 per province, and among the districts, each would be represented by 2,33 parties.
Political parties are meant to follow or adopt a particular ideology to achieve or maintain a desired socio-economic and cultural order.
The main objective may be to establish a particular type of governance such as a federal one, a clearly political objective.
It may be the wish of a party to establish a socialist system in which means of production and distribution are owned and administered by the state.
There are other objectives parties may wish to achieve when in power.
Some media may disagree with some of those objectives and will not wish to promote the parties concerned.
That was quite obvious with Britain’s various media during our liberation struggle. The only print media that would give much exposure to liberation movements were those exposing an anti-colonial, socialist ideology.
Zimbabwe’s political parties would be well advised to spell out clearly what their respective policies are on land, public health, education, economic investments, gender equality, rural development, corruption and other areas over which governments have responsibility and influence.
In such a case, some media would be excited to inform their target publics about what kind of country Zimbabwe would be if each of those parties were to get into power.
Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu is a retired, Bulawayo-based journalist. He can be contacted on cell 0734 328 136 or through e-mail. sgwakuba@gmail.com

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