There is no more important work that the media does than its work on elections. If the voters are misinformed about policies, or the politicians standing for election, democracy cannot work.
Well before the elections, there has to be continuous coverage of the policies and the politicians, including exposures of wrong-doing. During the elections, coverage has to be fair and proportionate. After the elections, the coverage of the results has to be accurate.
This is not as easy to achieve as it seems, especially where there are those trying to prevent the media achieving these requirements.
It is helpful if Guidelines for Election Coverage can be agreed with key players in advance. There are those who, in the heat of the battle, will try to derail the broadcasters’ efforts to cover the elections freely and fairly.
This is why this Handbook is so important. It offers guidance on the key questions the broadcasters have to face, and encourages them to plan ahead.
Such a Handbook can be consulted well ahead, for planning purposes, and when the pressure is on. It can be a resource which journalists can use in their defence, and which politicians also can consult if they feel they are not treated with fairness.
I commend this essential publication and have every hope that it will make a useful contribution to the democratic process.
Commonwealth Broadcasting Association
An election is a crucial decision-making event that plays an important role in shaping the future of a country. If the election goes well, the country can continue on its path towards democracy and peace. If the election is faulty, it can undermine democracy and the country might even turn back towards conflict. In the modern age, the media can be a powerful influence on how an election proceeds inside the country, and how it is perceived from outside.
For an election to go well, it must above all be free. Freedom of speech and assembly must be guaranteed so that all citizens and all political candidates can speak and move without fear. The media must also be free and independent in order to tell everyone what was said or done without pressure to twist the truth. This is the task of professional journalists: to fully inform citizens of the issues and their choices so they can decide for themselves for whom to vote.
The election must also be fair. There must be established rules to ensure that every citizen has a secret vote. All candidates must have equal rights and opportunities to campaign without interference. The rules must be enforced fairly and everyone must respect the results of the vote.
The media usually constitute the most important source for people to inform themselves about the election and their political choices. Therefore the media need to be free to report equally on the campaigns of all political parties and enable citizens to determine possible differences between them. The media also need to provide all people with the same information on how to vote. And the media need to have the freedom to ask questions and get answers about the transparency of the election, and to tell voters if something is wrong so that it can be fixed.
The media should hold both the government and opposition parties to account for how they have acted in the previous term. The people need to know how well the government has run the country since the last election, and what alternatives the opposition parties presented during that time. Did the government build all the bridges and schools it promised? Did rural communities get the clean drinking water they needed? Did the government listen to good ideas from the opposition parties, from women, and from minorities?
When we say government, we mean elected politicians as well as all hired or appointed officials: the police, the army, the people who run the cities and provinces, schools and hospitals. Journalists need to ask these questions, and report how the political parties answer them.
For all of these reasons, it can be said that democracy and a free media have a special relationship. They need each other. A free media will help keep the election honest and democratic. And a democratically elected government will protect the media’s freedom.
Elections present a great challenge for the media. Journalists need to know the electio rules. They must report equally and independently on all candidates, parties and issues. The media should be the voice of the voters. Journalists must adhere to professional standards of accuracy, impartiality and responsibility. And they have to work amidst great excitement, under pressure from powerful interests, and with very little time – especially in countries where democracy is new or fragile.
Every country has different election rules and campaign issues, but there are some worldwide standards for an election to be considered free and fair. There are rights and responsibilities every professional journalist should know about. There are also skills journalists can use to help voters become better informed.
It is the intention of this publication to help journalists to better perform in their task by providing some tools, best practices and analysis on the role media has played in some Asian countries.
Dr. Paul Pasch