The Commonwealth, in partnership with the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), has invited media managers and editors from across Malawi to a workshop in Lilongwe. Together, they are creating a “toolkit” of techniques in support of fair and balanced election coverage on television, radio, newspapers and social media. Campaigning is about to begin for national elections on 21 May.
Speaking to the gathered journalists at the opening ceremony, Commissioner Mary Nkosi of MEC said: “You have the critical role of bringing electoral information to the public. This needs to be done in a manner that does not disadvantage any contestant. Otherwise, if the media act as gatekeepers, you will not offer a level playing field for all candidates and you can easily undermine the efforts of the Malawi Electoral Commission to have free, fair and credible elections this year.”
Media professionals in Malawi have already made a commitment to fair and balanced election coverage. In December 2017 they agreed on a Code of Conduct for reporting on the campaign. The problem is implementation. Owners of media outlets often have preferences that lead to selective coverage of campaign events. Rumours and fake news sometimes make it into print. Reporters may not have the time or resources to balance their stories with a range of viewpoints. Editors may not separate editorial opinion from news coverage.
Working with Panos Southern Africa and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Malawi), the Commonwealth has developed a toolbox of journalistic techniques that editors and reporters can use to help them overcome media bias and deliver fair and balanced coverage of the election campaign. Aubrey Chikungwa, Director of MISA Malawi, says this is the missing link:
“The Code of Conduct doesn’t provide any guidance on implementation. So it’s important to provide techniques and approaches that editors can use to ensure their coverage of the election is as fair and neutral as possible,” he said. “And that’s what the Commonwealth toolkit does.”
At the workshop, the editors and media managers are discussing how to improve and take ownership of the toolkit. Their work is specific to each channel of communication in the country: national broadcasters, community broadcasters, social media practitioners, daily newspapers and weekly newspapers and periodicals.
Most importantly, each media outlet will create an action plan in support of balanced election coverage.
“Action plans provide an opportunity for the editors to commit to the activities that they will take on as part of implementing the toolkit,” said Lilian Saka Kiefer, head of Panos Southern Africa. “And they will help us to monitor and track what has been achieved. On their end, it gives media managers an opportunity to prove what they claim and say ‘here is the data that shows how we have been impartial and how we have been fair in our coverage’”.
Commonwealth observer groups – most recently in Zimbabwe - have often noted that biased news reporting is an impediment to credible and transparent elections. By building the capacity of journalists to report fairly, the Commonwealth deepens its approach to election observation and strengthens its assistance to member countries through the electoral cycle.
“The action plans will help us monitor the performance of media outlets,” said Neil Ford, Director of Communications at the Commonwealth. “The toolkit will assist them with practical solutions for balanced coverage. And the code of conduct describes the values and principles that underpin the contribution of media to a healthy democracy. And all of this has been discussed and agreed upon by media managers and editors themselves. So I think we have laid the basis for vibrant, fair and balanced coverage of Malawi’s campaign.”