It is common knowledge that when politicians engage in the election contest, the media is caught in the crossfire.
In the run-up to the 1994 election, which was characterised by intense political struggle and violence that was endemic in KZN at the time, thousands of lives were lost and many journalists came under vicious attack from political leaders and their supporters. Death threats, injuries at rallies, verbal accusations, harassing phone calls in the dead of night, and no-go areas for some journalists, were commonplace. The intensity of this assault on journalists was fuelled by politicians who wished to control the media as an instrument to leverage votes.
In 1994 and 1996, relations between the media and politicians were on a knife-edge. Editors like myself and a former SABC regional editor, Judy Sandison, sought external help to end the conflict. We worked with the then Church Leaders Group to implement a Peace Pledge to stop the intimidation of journalists. This meant all politicians signed a special pledge to respect the role of the media.
Meetings were also held with key members of political parties to raise concern about how some of their leaders behaved. All sectors interested in the safety of journalists, including the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF), journalist unions and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), lobbied to raise awareness of the problem and make certain that it was taken seriously at national level.
We also lobbied for special protection in the Electoral Code and, accordingly, chapter 8 of the Code deals with the rights of the media during Elections. Since the run-up to the April 2004 Elections, political parties in several provinces have signed the Code at public ceremonies.
While seen as a symbolic gesture, it is important for political leaders and their supporters to understand and enforce the Code. It is also important for media to report on the Code and what happens to those who break it. A breach in the Code constitutes a criminal offence.
While in more recent elections the tone of the attacks on the media has mellowed, the constant struggle by politicians to get individual journalists to buy into their political agenda is a practice that is either covertly or overtly pursued. No single political party can claim innocence. Some journalists knowingly or unknowingly fall prey to such practices, blinded either by the attention of important leaders, or they are themselves unsure about their place in the election landscape.
Now, as the election campaigns intensify in the run-up to the election, there appears to be a subtle resurgence in the political pressure on journalists in the province, and the intensity of political intolerance appears to again be growing. On November 25 (2008) the IEC hosted a one-day national peace summit in Durban. It was attended by all the major political parties and the key issue on the table was political tolerance.
IEC chairperson, Brigilia Bam, raised concern over the “worrying signs of a resurgence (of) political intolerance and violence, which if not attended to, may grow into levels that may be difficult to contain”.
She warned that: “The rhetoric of violence and coercion is on the rise and incidences of political intolerance are bubbling to the surface.” This is something that journalists need to take note of.
Media is a key player in any election and broadly speaking is known to:
• set the election agenda from a news reporting perspective;
• influence public and political debate and opinion; and
• assist the public in making informed choices.
We also assist politicians to strategise their campaigns and manifestos and many campaigns are run with media being a critical player.
In all of these crucial roles it is important for journalists not to forget their key role in acting as a watchdog. To play this role to its fullest, it is crucial for the journalist to understand that the process, fabric and dynamics of an election are very different and often alien to the daily run of things in the news world. There are far greater challenges and obstacles that face the media during the elections.
Understanding these challenges and obstacles allows us to tell better stories and to remain professional and ethical despite the difficulties we are faced with. We must not be naïve to think that the efforts to ensure that our reporting is fair and balanced will be enough to control the tempers of certain politicians. It is not uncommon for politicians in highly contested areas to ignore the rights of the media and continue their attacks on journalists.
In KZN, as a senior journalist and later an editor, I noted that whether or not journalists did their jobs well, there would always be (an) objection(s) by the political players. It goes with the territory of elections. Of those who complained, very few were prepared to entertain or even listen to the points of view of the media.
Most were furious and did not want the journalist concerned anywhere near their campaigns or rallies.
The key concerns expressed by politicians during election campaigns, notably 1994, 1996 and 1999 and 2004, always dwelled on the following:
• Politicians in hotly contested areas always objected to stories that portrayed them in a negative light.
• They objected when their rivals were given publicity.
• They felt personally attacked when journalists probed their actions.
• They felt “betrayed” when journalists who were their “comrades” prior to 1994 reported about their organisation in a critical manner.
• Smaller political parties constantly complained that they were being overlooked by the bigger players during the elections.
• Politicians often objected to the way a story was handled, the type of language used and/the treatment of the piece.
• It was not uncommon for certain high-profile leaders to phone and verbally insult editors and journalists.
Media can play an important role in lessening the conflict during elections through positive interventions.
We do not solve the problems but act as conduit to communicate solutions through other people. These are some examples of how the media can assist:
• Debates and analysis on critical issues help give a better perspective of problems and concerns.
• Running in-depth features on the conflict and its negative impact could help communities look for alternative solutions to problems.
• Reporting issues in a responsible manner and putting the issues in the right context gives clarity to them.
• Tapping into alternative decision-makers such as independent analysts and experts often offers the public an independent view on things.
• Reflecting on the source of confl icts and getting rival groups to talk to each other at a public platform with a view to finding lasting solutions for problem areas help develop a better understanding of the situation. This can be difficult and requires a great amount and persuasion.
Extracts from the South African Electoral Code
This excerpt is taken from the Handbook on Legislation and Regulations for South Africa’s Local Government Elections, published by the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA) and the Independent Electoral Commission in 2000.
Electoral Code of Conduct
Purpose of the Code
The purpose of this Code is to promote the conditions that are conducive to free and fair elections including –
a. Tolerance of democratic, political activity; and
b. Free political campaigning and open public debate.
Role of the media
Every party and every candidate –
a. Must respect the role of the media before, during and after an election conducted in terms of this (Electoral) 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 subject to harassment, intimidation, hazard, threat or physical assault by any of their representatives or supporters.
Those who violate the Electoral Code could face various criminal charges. Depending on the severity of the crime, various punitive measures can be enforced. The law calls for the nullification of votes in the voting district where the incidents occur. Political parties guilty of breaking the law can be fined up to R200,000. Results at affected voting stations can be nullified and the party responsible may be disqualified from a voting station. There is also the possibility of a prison sentence for certain infringements.
Mary Papayya is a former editor, news editor, executive producer and bureau chief in print and radio. She is currently serving her third term as the secretary-general for the South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF). She is the KZN bureau chief for the Sowetan and is a leading Southern-African media trainer and consultant.
- This article first appeared in The Media magazine (February 2009).