News / 26.03.2012

A free media in Africa necessary but insufficient precondition for free elections

Linus Atarah

While media freedom and pluralism are necessary conditions, they are not sufficient indicators of how free elections would be conducted in Africa, says Professor Audrey Gadzepo, of the School of Communication Studies at the University of Ghana. Rather, the overall political and civil rights that exist within a particular country would form the overall basis for determining the outcome of elections in African countries.

Gadzekpo, a visiting researcher at the Nordic African Institute in Uppsala, Sweden, was giving a lecture at the Svenska social- och kommunalhögskolan (The Swedish School of Social Science) in the University of Helsinki.

In African countries where a majority of the population is not politically sophisticated the media plays a very crucial role in conveying information to people which would help them make decisions. The media also provide routine information such as locations of polling stations and the civic rights and responsibilities of citizens during elections.

Therefore the performance of the media can either strengthen the electoral process or undermine it altogether.

Giving an interview after her lecture, Gadzekpo, also highlighted on the need for African journalists to be unionised in order to avoid falling prey to corrupt influences by politicians and wealthy individuals who might purchase the media to advance their political agenda. 

Covering elections in African countries can be an explosive minefield and journalists face dangers due to the tension arising from competition, says Gadzekpo, an expert on media and elections.

“It is a battle between contending parties and that battle is not always civil, anyone moderating that battle as journalists do, can easily be a victim”, she says.

Besides that, she says, in many African countries the tendency is for incumbent leadership to abuse their position by not allowing the media to provide equal access to opposition party candidates, contrary to what is provided in the law.

In varying degrees the media in African countries have successfully played their role as impartial arbiters of elections, with some countries doing better than others depending on other factors on the ground.

One of such factors, she says is the level of political freedoms in the various African countries, for instance, as ranked by Freedom House, the American-based freedom watch-dog. 

According to Freedom House’s last year’s rankings, only five out of a total of 49 sub-Saharan African counties are ranked as having free media. In 22 other countries the media are considered not free. In others the media are categorised as partly free.

“Not all countries with pluralistic media have a free media system”, she says.
Therefore where the media are not free – either through censorship or where journalists are attacked – they would be unable to perform their role of providing the electorate with the necessary information which would help them make informed voting decisions or properly scrutinize contending candidates, she says.

The activities of Freedom House is not entirely uncontroversial. The organisation is widely criticised for being too closed to the neo-conservative wing of American political establishment, is biased towards American allies and is often seen to be openly driving American foreign policy goals.

In many African countries there are laws which guarantee equal access to the media by all political parties during elections but, according to her, legal guarantee alone is not enough but the de facto condition on the ground.

“You have to strengthen the media’s ability to report properly; you have to strengthen the media’s sense of fairness in proving access to all contending parties”, she says.

Besides, the media should view themselves as a resource that has to be equitably distributed in order that aggrieved and marginalised political candidates can also have their messages out.

And equally important, she says, the media should also be willing and compelled to work within sets of codes of conducts and guidelines.

In this connection Gadzekpo, says it would help a great deal if journalists in Africa are unionised.

She cited an example from Ghana where she says the lack of a trade union allows media owners to exploit journalists. The Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) is an organisation that journalists can voluntarily join but does not fight for better working and conditions of service for journalists.

Without any form of welfare protection, Ghanaian journalists are vulnerable to all kinds of corrupting influences, Gadzekpo says.

“A journalists union provides its members with certain benefits which can serve as a carrot for members to adhere to certain rules and regulations. A union negotiates the terms and condition of service for it members and therefore provides them with security”, she says.

According to her, in many instances journalists exercise self-censorship because of the fear of arbitrary dismissal. But the existence of a union would allow journalists to openly exercise their freedom of expression because of the knowledge that they are unlikely to be arbitrarily dismissed since there is the protection of a union behind them.  

But in the absence of a trade union, journalists are likely to fall into corrupt practices mainly because their salaries are not enough and they have to resort to blackmail and extortion in order to survive.

“I have this story on you do you want to kill it?” is an illustration of how poorly paid non-unionised journalists would behave in order to augment their incomes, she says.
While outsiders may dismiss the state-owned media in Africa as mouth-pieces for government propaganda, Gadzekpo says on the contrary that the state-owned media in Africa can play a very important role in keeping the electorate informed during elections.

According to her, the private media in Africa is only a recent phenomenon and therefore have little infrastructure compared to the state-owned media.

It is the state-owned media with its extensive and developed infrastructure which enables it penetrate most parts of the country and so during elections, without the state-owned media the private sector media are unable to reach a majority of the electorate with the necessary information that they need.

Therefore the state-owned media are a national resource which should provide equitable accessibility to all contending candidates during elections. Many African countries do realize this and have enacted laws in the constitution that guarantees equal access to the media by political parties.

Nevertheless she concedes that what is stipulated in the legislation is not always followed in practice. So while state media systems in Africa do make efforts to address the issue of equal accessibility to all election candidates there are still gaps in the news coverage which gives more coverage to the incumbent candidates.


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