Close to 60 countries are planning elections this year. Close to 60 chances to change political fates, 60 occasions to uphold democracy by exercising democratic rights. The number of elections that will be truly fair and equal is likely to be lower. Election fraud or election irregularities are rampant problems, and sometimes voters complain about hurdles to free elections even in old democracies. We will learn and see a lot this year, and many new and old problems of electoral systems will come under renewed scrutiny. Election monitoring is an opportunity for development groups to have an impact – and sometimes it’s a matter of media development.
This claim comes from a report on “Covering Elections: The Challenges of Training the Watchdogs,” published by the Center for International Media Assistance. It makes a lot of sense, too – the media are a watchdog in everyday political processes, and have a special role to play in elections. Most of what we know about any election we don’t know from personal contact with the campaign, but from the media. Media have certain responsibilities when covering elections, and they can act as election monitors in their own right.
The report’s author, Rosemary Armao, argues that media developers this year have an “unparalleled opportunity” to “boost democracy” through providing special training to journalists on how to cover elections. She complains that donor-financed election training for journalists has focused on sensitive election years, with rushed programming, faulty participant selection, short-term effects, and no follow-up. Donors are also hindered by the desire not to influence citizens in how to cast their vote, which makes them cautious on the ground. Armao calls for more systematic long-term efforts to promote investigative journalism and to build a professional culture of journalists who know the tools of the trade and who know the political and legal facets of elections.
Parachute training – flying Western consultants into developing countries to quickly teach complicated matters – is a typical problem of media development, and of course there should be long-term engagement to strengthen the journalistic profession wherever it’s necessary and possible. The election angle is intriguing—I would imagine that in some countries, journalists are not aware of the possibility of being election watchdogs, and the international system wouldn’t necessarily treat them as such. The UN regularly assigns election watchdogs to countries with weak electoral systems. That is also a short-term measure, and not many people will have a chance to learn something for the next election. Electoral systems are probably not changed that way. Strengthening an independent and well-skilled journalistic profession may well be an effective approach to making elections more transparent and less susceptible to fraud. It would be worth an investment, even from donors that do not traditionally engage in media development. One more aspect of the political system where the media can make a significant difference.
Picture: Flickr user Kuwaitelections2012