Media Sector Needs Conducive Environment to Better Cover Elections, Says MRA Director

Mr. Edetaen Ojo
Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA)

A major challenge to the optimal performance of the media during electoral processes in Africa is how to ensure that other stakeholder groups fulfil their obligations to create an enabling environment for the media sector to perform its professional and social functions, according to Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA). 

He said going by various documents which outline the role of the media during elections, it is expected that for the media to effectively perform its professional and social duties during electoral processes, certain conditions need to exist and the responsibility for ensuring that those conditions exist rests with a number of stakeholder groups outside of the media, including Governments, law enforcement and security agencies, political parties, the election management body, and media regulatory bodies. 

Mr. Ojo, who is also the Chairperson of the Steering Committee of the African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX), a network of freedom of expression organizations in Africa, spoke at the second African Media Convention (AMC), which took place in Lusaka, Zambia, from May 11 to 13, 2023.

He wondered whether the media could be expected to perform optimally in the absence of an enabling environment, saying if other stakeholders fail to play their roles in creating the right kind of conditions for the media to operate “what are the chances that the media can play their own roles adequately or that the efforts of the media would make a difference if the media sector does not have a conducive environment to do its work?” 

Speaking on “Media and Elections in Africa”, Mr. Ojo said: “For democracy to be meaningful, citizens must be able to make intelligent choices during elections. To do this, the citizens must have access to accurate, up-to-date, reliable and full information about the programmes and policies of all political parties, about the candidates in the election, about the issues being canvassed and the arrangements for the elections.” 

He noted that citizens should also be able to analyse, criticize and contribute to the discourse on the economic and social programmes being canvassed in the electioneering campaign and that the responsibility to inform voters about the processes, issues and programmes involved naturally falls on the media.  

Mr. Ojo observed that media are expected to educate the citizens and potential voters about the candidates in an election, which enables intelligent choices to be made, adding that “This is one of the many important roles that the media plays during the electoral process.” 

Saying that the media is central to the electoral process, he stressed that in many countries in Africa, it is particularly important that the public has adequate and non-partisan information about electoral processes as well as about the political parties and their candidates as the democratic experience is still relatively new and evolving in a context of high illiteracy and widespread ignorance.

This, according to Mr. Ojo “is why we talk so much about the media during elections and focus so much attention on the media.” 

He shared experiences from the situation of the media during the elections in Nigeria, noting that “the sheer volume of attacks on journalists in the lead up to the 2023 general elections in Nigeria and particularly on election days was quite alarming”, adding that: “This represents a clear and present danger that the media face and that we now need to address.” 

He insisted that “while the media has a professional responsibility to serve as a market place of ideas, in particular, during elections, and to adequately inform the electorate about all issues relevant to the elections, the media and civil society communities must also insist that other stakeholders that have the responsibility to do so, play their part in creating the enabling environment for the media to function optimally.” 

Mr. Ojo identified the conditions which should exist for the media to perform its functions optimally to include issues such as: 

  • The fact that the safety of journalists during electoral processes is assured and that they are free from assault or intimidation in any manner by government, its agencies and officials or other actors. 
  • That any assault, harassment, intimidation and other crimes against the media and journalists is promptly investigated and that any individual or group accused of being a perpetrator is prosecuted. 
  • That the government and its agencies channel any complaint that they have about the conduct of journalists during electoral processes to the appropriate regulatory or legal institutions and refrain from extra-judicial actions or other forms of self-help; and 
  • That the government and its agencies ensure the free movement of journalists in any part of the country during electoral processes and refrain from any act likely to shall inhibit such free movement 

For the political parties, he said they were required to: 

  • Respect the rights of journalists to cover and report their activities and refrain from harassing or intimidating them in any manner; 
  • Support the investigation of any act of assault, harassment, or intimidation against the media and journalists by their members or agents and ensure that the alleged perpetrators are promptly brought to justice;
  • Channel any complaint arising from the conduct of journalists covering their activities to the appropriate regulatory or legal institutions and refrain from extra- judicial actions or any other form of self-help;  
  • Provide prompt notification and adequate information about their activities to the media or representatives of various media organizations;  and 
  • Refrain from offering bribes or other forms of inducement to journalists to publish or suppress information about themselves or their activities. 

Mr. Ojo called on all stakeholders to ensure the effective implementation of regional standards and guidance documents on the role of the media in elections. 

He recalled that at its 61st Ordinary Session held in Banjul, The Gambia, in November 2017, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted the “Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa”, whose purpose, according to the resolution adopted in 2015 by the Commission mandating the development of the Guidelines, “is to address the absence of regional standards on access to information and elections as a means of guaranteeing the credibility of elections and the overall strengthening of democratic governance in Africa.” 

Mr. Ojo noted that the Guidelines contain very detailed and important guidance for a range of stakeholders on their information disclosure obligations and practices, including the Approving authorities for Election Management Bodies; the Election Management Bodies; Political Parties and Candidates; Election Observers and Monitors; Law Enforcement Agencies; Media and Internet Regulatory Bodies; the Media and Online Media Platform Providers; and Civil Society Organizations. 

He regretted that the Guidelines have largely been ignored during electoral processes in various countries since its adoption, but argued that it was necessary for media stakeholders to study Paragraph 29 of the Guidelines, on “The Media and Online Media Platform Providers”. 

Mr. Ojo stressed that the provision contains detailed guidance for media professionals and institutions to do better in their election coverage.