From Swazi Media Commentary
Swaziland will hold its unique form of elections later this year (2008). I say ‘unique’ because although the ruling elites in the kingdom believe the elections to be democratic, just about nobody else does.
The date for the elections has not been set, but it is generally accepted they will be towards the end of the year, possibly in October or November.
As in elections anywhere in the world, the media will play an important part in keeping people informed about what is going on. In the free world it is generally accepted that the media have a prime responsibility to examine what government is and is not doing, by reporting the news, interpreting the news, influencing citizens’ opinions, setting the agenda for government action, and socializing citizens about politics and encouraging a political culture to evolve.
This is even more important at election time when voters go to the polls to elect a new government.
In Swaziland where political parties are banned, candidates are only allowed to stand as individuals. You can learn more about the Swazi electoral system here.
Most of the time the Swazi media are not very good at calling political leaders to account and this is especially so at election time. In this, the first of an occasion series of posts about the media and the forthcoming Swazi elections, I want to look back to the last elections in 2003 and see how the media performed.
In a report of the Swazi media coverage of the 2003 elections the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA) found that the print media in Swaziland played an important role in keeping the voters and all stakeholders informed about the elections by their extensive coverage of the elections but the broadcast media were less good.
Here is an extract from the report.
We observed however that the approach the two main dailies; the Times of Swaziland and the Observer took was different from one another.
The Observer, seeing that it was government owned, took a conservative approach to the elections whereas the Times of Swaziland, a privately owned paper, took a progressive approach and tended to sensationalise the issues.
With regard to the content of their coverage we noted that the eight cases that arose from the primary election disputes, received more coverage in both dailies than pertinent electoral issues that are aimed at informing the electorate. The local observers and media personnel indicated that coverage by the broadcasting media on the other hand was scant. There were no programmes or any other discussions on elections in the few weeks leading to the polling day.
The response from the contesting candidates regarding access to the media varied. Some individuals commented that there had been unfairness in terms of giving people equal access; that candidates with financial influence had greater access to the print media. And usually those featured were mostly the popular candidates, which tended to marginalise those in rural communities with no assets.
Others however commended the broadcasting media for providing equitable access.
The Swaziland Broadcasting Information Service (SBIS) they noted, allowed all candidates to canvass in the airwaves for about five minutes.
Reports from the local observers as well as representatives from the media indicated that the use of the media by the Elections Office was very limited. Most commented that there was very little feedback from the Elections Office to the various media outlets regarding the election process.
Local observers blamed this lack of communication on the mistrust the Election Officers had for the media.
That said, at least one representative from the media outlets commented positively on the interventions of the Elections Office to ensure that pertinent information regarding the election process was regularly fed to the media.
In a related matter, we observed that there was no monitoring mechanism within the Elections Office to assess the media’s coverage of elections. This would have ensured that the media played a more constructive role in the elections.
Most media personnel commented that they were not aware of a policy, law or even a commission that ensures that elections were covered effectively and fairly or one that allocates fair and free time to all candidates.
The Commonwealth Expert Team which observed the elections in 2003 came to similar conclusions about the media. It liked the ‘vigour’ print media coverage, but criticised the Times of Swaziland for being sensational. The report said, ‘we hope that it will do more in future to discuss issues as well as to report on personalities’.
The report found broadcasting coverage of the election in Swaziland ‘disappointing’.
It went on, ‘The limitation on resources was quoted in explanation. Radio Swaziland told us they carried short items by the candidates early in the morning, but there was little news about the election and in the week up to the poll we heard no discussion programmes or any other substantial coverage. This mattered because the majority of Swazi citizens have access to the radio, so this is the perfect medium for conveying information and creating awareness. Although the state broadcasting media had internal guidelines there was no Code of Conduct regarding the behaviour of the media. There was no allocation of broadcast “free time” for candidate.’
The Commonwealth Expert Team also criticised Swaziland Radio coverage on the election day itself. ‘The fact that it was election day was not even mentioned on the early morning news,’ the report stated.
The report concluded that in future elections a Code of Conduct for media personnel covering elections should be drawn up. This, it felt, would ‘ensure high standard and balanced coverage’.
First published 31 January 2008.