Collaboration opens space for good election reporting

Reporting during elections is often marred by bad or weak relations between media, police, government election entities and political actors. How do these parties find common ground?

By Helle Wahlberg, IMS, Addis Ababa

Reporting during elections is often blemished by verbal and sometimes physical clashes between media, police, political parties and government entities. The relationship between these parties is often marred by distrust, arising from an inability of the sides to fully appreciate the role of one another in a democratic society.

So, what happens when they are placed together around a table ahead of elections with the intent to improve media’s election coverage and capabilities? The IMS and Media Foundation West Africa debate on “Best practices on elections reporting” at the World Press Freedom Day conference in Addis on 1 May offered a view into the dynamics at play and how to break down stereotypical, predetermined views of one another. The audience of 150 journalists and media development representatives heard from a diverse range of actors from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana and Norway – from election management bodies, police, media development organisations and journalists.

Going beyond the usual suspects

Ideally, media should provide a platform for balanced information on candidates and issues during elections and function as a vehicle for promoting public debate and ensuring access to information that educates. Media during elections should involve the electorate, as well as monitor the integrity of the electoral process and hold governments to account. However, this is far from the reality in many countries with developing democracies.

According to panel moderator Jesper Højberg, director of IMS, media assistance provided by both international and local media development organisations around elections has far too often been narrow and shortsighted, single-actor focused, been detached from other ongoing media support initiatives and often only been delivered immediately before or during elections.

But recent efforts to improve media practices and media’s coverage of elections in Zimbabwe, Ghana and Nigeria have generated good results with an approach based on a perhaps unlikely collaboration between media, police and government electoral entities coupled with a focus on the safety of journalists, election media monitoring and factchecking.

“In Zimbabwe, the elections in 2018 promised change at a time when many had lost hope given previous elections processes,” IMS Zimbabwe programme consultant and gender advisor Simbiso Marimbe explained.

“A surge of positive energy erupted with the prospect of possible political change after decades of stalemate under former President Mugabe. So we decided that to tap into the excitement that citizens were showing by involving themselves in the public debate and use it to fuel our work to improve the media’s coverage during elections.”

One of the corner stones of the recently concluded 2016-2018 media and elections support programme in Zimbabwe funded by the EU and Norway, was the collaboration encouraged between media and the Zimbabwean government’s electoral commission and citizens – going beyond those producing media coverage. Journalists were asked to interact directly with electoral technicians to understand the election process rather than only focusing on political personalities. In addition, several citizens meetings were held in rural areas with election officers, media and the communities to push for better access to information about elections in rural areas. The broad collaboration that ran parallel with the election cycle, kept the media focused on issues of public concern while citizens had better access to relevant information than previous years.

“The critical elements here were collaboration and dialogue, improving the electoral debates. Previously, there was a lot of division between the stakeholders we brought together. Previously everyone was doing their own thing. This time we were a one stop shop in terms of support for media with access to information from electoral bodies. We built mutual trust amongst these and also the police. Good journalism succeeded despite often competing political, power and financial interests.

Joyce Kazembe, from the Zimbabwe elections commission concurred.
“We worked closely with civil society organisations, involving them in voter education material. We gained better outreach, people were better more informed, also because we via media and through meetings could reach out beyond cities to rural areas. People were more informed during this election with less polarized media.

Relationships a long-term investment

According to police commissioner in Ghana, Nathan Boakye, media in Ghana used to be more stifled and many members of the media in blanket opposition to the police. However, following a series of meeting as part of the “Media and Police Dialogues Programme” run by Media Foundation for Western Africa and IMS to improve the safety and coverage of journalists during elections.

“We now talk to media as part of our involvement in the electoral process – not just in cities, but also outside in rural areas,” police commissioner Nathan Boakye said. “We talk to journalists about what content is safe to publish, content which does not incite violence and which is factual. We also now warn journalists of flashpoints where they can be in danger, and police can provide advice and safety. A closer relationship increases security of journalists.”

The same programme was repeated with the help of Nathan Boakye in Nigeria, who traveled to the country to share his experience from Ghana wit his peers. Journalist Kemi Yesufu Onyekachi was part of the group of journalists who met with Nigerian police to improve relations and mutual understanding during elections.

“In Nigeria we try our best to ensure a good relationship with the police. Often during elections, media houses send more journalists into the field. This can create friction. But when we met in February 2019, we decided to be honest with one another on how best to manage ourselves.”

The problem according to Ms. Onyekachi is with regular police officers, not high-ranking officers who have a better understanding of the role of media. Further follow-up meetings consolidated the relationship. Consequently, there was very little reported manhandling of journalists during the country’s May elections and this time, no journalists were arrested.

“This relationship-building must not start and end with elections. The relationships must be kept alive.”

Targeting hate speech through partnerships

In Ghana during elections in 2016 and after, work done by Media Foundation for Western Africa (MFWA) to bridge the gap between journalists and police was framed not only with a view to improving the safety of journalists, but amplifying media as a contributor to peaceful elections as gatekeeper.

“Political figures were using media as a platform to spew hateful message, so we sat down with media, politicians, and police and defined what could be classified as violence inciting hate speech and why to avoid it”, Vivian Affoah, programme manager at MFWA, explained.

“People bought into the project of fighting hate speech. We recorded a 76 per cent reduction in 2016, compared to last elections, and MFWA named and shamed those misusing media for hateful messages and those media publishing hate speech.

By bringing together these parties usually in somewhat opposition to one another, not only did their mutual understanding improve, MFWA’s media monitoring of hate speech also brought down the amount of hate speech by naming and shaming the culprits. According to Vivian Affoah, many media outlets will now withdraw published hate speech or refrain completely from publishing it because they know MFWA is watching.

“Our dialogue and media monitoring allowed them to reflect on how their platforms were being used their responsibility for securing peaceful elections. In fact, now we have a guide book on the safety of journalists that police must read as part of their training,” says Vivian Affoah.

Successful fact-checking dependent on big media backing

In countries like Norway, the real challenge facing the media and public during elections is the spread of disinformation. is a fact-checking agency consisting of six main media houses in Norway and its success is based entirely on this broad cooperation, explains fact-checking expert Tore Bergsaker.

“When information spreads quickly through filter bubbles, we are witnessing information pollution driven by economics or politics. It creates mistrust and division sometimes. The easy response is to regulate or support media self-regulating bodies or factchecking entities. But factchecking is only part of the solution. Raising media literacy rates and critical thinking in the population is equally important, not only during elections,” said Tore Bergsaker.

The fact that is a collaborative effort between six big media outlets in Norway means that corrected facts are circulated much more widely. For, the collaboration has increased distribution of factchecking on their website 10-fold.

Best practices to strengthen media coverage during elections

Tore Bergsaker’s point of fact-checking only being part of the solution to peaceful elections with good media coverage is easily corroborated by the examples presented in the Zimbabwe and West Africa. Moderator Jesper Højberg, director of IMS summarised the best practices uncovered during the discussions.

“Collaboration – whether between parties sometimes at odds, but all significant to media’s ability to cover the elections – or between media houses to maximise the impact of factchecking, is fundamental to improving media’s coverage of elections. In addition, the fact that collaboration takes place between a broad range of media stakeholders rather than focusing only on the media sector, has a greater effect on improving election media coverage,” he added.

He continued: “What we have also learned is that efforts to build relationships between involved election stakeholders must be coupled with other ongoing media development initiatives such as media monitoring, safety for journalists, fact-checking and good, critical journalism training.”

Perhaps the most important lesson learnt is that timing is key.

“In order to properly ingrain new and better practices in journalists to improve election coverage and cement new collaboration with other media stakeholders like election commissions, police and political entities, these efforts must span the full electoral cycle and ideally go well beyond. New relationships and new media practices need time to take hold and for mutual trust to develop and flourish after elections,” he concludes.

More information about IMS’ media and police dialogues work in West Africa available here.