Swaziland: Media Need Ethical Code for Election

As in elections anywhere in the world, the media in Swaziland should 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.

Most of the time the Swazi media are not very good at any of these things: they do not even explain to their audience that the election is irrelevant because people are not electing a government.

The elections which are held every five years have been criticised by international observer groups as undemocratic because political parties are banned and the parliament has few powers in the kingdom ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch.

There are two chambers in the Swazi parliament: the House of Assembly and the Senate. Of the 65 members of the House, 10 are chosen by King Mswati and 55 are elected by the people.

In the Senate, King Mswati chooses 20 of the 30 places. The other 10 are chosen by members of the House of Assembly. None are elected by the people.

The king then choses a prime minister and his cabinet.

In the past, media in Swaziland have performed poorly at election time. In the kingdom all broadcast media that carries news, except one TV station, are state-controlled and restrict what can be broadcast, denying airtime to voices that oppose the government or the king.

There are only two newspaper groups in the kingdom. The Swazi Observer group is owned by a company controlled by the king and the Times of Swaziland group, which is the only independent source of daily news.

The Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA) which monitored the 2008 election later reported campaigning lasted about five weeks and was a low key affair, with no rallies or marches, and was restricted to the handing out of pamphlets, the distribution of Tshirts and a few paid advertisements in the media.

EISA reported the use of larger posters - some of them in colour - by some candidates and vigorous door to door canvassing by candidates' supporters.

Nevertheless, compared with elections in other parts of southern Africa, campaigning generated little public interest.

In Swaziland, political parties are banned, so elections are not a contest for ideas or practical policies. Instead, candidates are elected as individual representatives of their constituencies and voters are encouraged to choose the person they think will deliver most for them when they reach parliament.

Campaigning in 2008 focused on local issues such as promises of clinics, transport infrastructure and employment creating projects.

After the 2008 election, EISA reported that only a minority of observers felt that media coverage was good and treatment was fair.

EISA reported:

- The media did attempt to keep voters informed, but did not recognise the role they should be playing as voter educators.

- Coverage by the print media was better than that of the broadcast media.

- Coverage by public media was biased and the private media were censoring themselves and inclined to favour some candidates over others.

These experiences of the 2008 election were similar to those of 2003 when media in Swaziland were criticised for not giving enough information to the people of the kingdom about what was going on.

On the day of the 2003 election itself state-controlled Radio Swaziland did not even report that an election was taking place. Coverage by all broadcasting media during the campaign was scant. There were no programmes or any other discussions on elections in the few weeks leading to polling day, EISA said in a report on that year's election.

EISA also said among newspapers, the Observer tended to be 'conservative' in its reporting and the Times, 'tended to sensationalise the issues'.

The Commonwealth Expert Team (CET) which observed the elections in 2003 came to similar conclusions about the media.

It liked the 'vigour' of the print media coverage, but also criticised the Times 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 inadequate media coverage in 2003 prompted the CET to recommend 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' in reporting.

That was 10 years ago, but nothing has happened to improve election coverage since.

The Swaziland National Association of Journalists (SNAJ) does have a code of conduct that provides a framework of reference to all practicing journalists in Swaziland, both full-time and freelance in their day-to-day work.

The code is meant to ensure that members adhere to the highest ethical standards, professional competence and good behaviour in carrying out their duties.

Its overriding concern is that members of the media should conduct themselves with a high sense of responsibility without infringing the rights of individuals and society in general.

However, the SNAJ code is not followed by editors in Swaziland and it does not deal with the coverage of elections. In this respect Swaziland is falling behind other countries in Africa.

Since the turn of the century a number of African states have produced guidelines for journalists and other media personnel when covering elections. Among these states are Sierra Leone and Somaliland.

In an attempt to begin a discussion on what a code of conduct on election coverage might look like in Swaziland, here is a draft code of conduct for covering elections in the kingdom.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel as many such codes of conduct exist elsewhere in Africa. This proposed draft code borrows extensively from codes of Somaliland and Tanzania.

Preamble

The preamble should make some definitive statements about what the role media have in the process of politics, such as these.

The media play an important role in monitoring the electoral process. By covering the election events and the political campaign, the media ensure that the public is aware of what is happening.

The media help the public to make a free and informed choice. They do this in three ways in particular:

- By communicating political messages from parties and candidates;

- By relaying important voter information from election administrators;

- By subjecting the whole election process to independent scrutiny and comment.

Individual journalists

Then we might look at the responsibilities of individual journalists.

Such as:

- The first duty of a journalist is to report accurately and without bias.

- A journalist shall report only in accordance with facts of which s/he knows the origin. A journalist shall not suppress essential information.

- A journalist shall observe professional secrecy regarding the source of information obtained in confidence.

- A journalist shall report in a balanced manner. If a candidate makes an allegation against another candidate, the journalist should seek comment from both sides wherever possible.

- A journalist shall do the utmost to correct any published information that is found to be harmfully inaccurate.

- As far as possible, a journalist shall report the views of candidates and political parties directly and in their own words, rather than as they are described by others.

- A journalist shall avoid using language or expressing sentiments that may further discrimination or violence on any grounds, including race, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, and national or social origins.

- When reporting the opinions of those who do advocate discrimination or violence, a journalist shall do the utmost to put such views in a clear context and to report the opinions of those against whom such sentiments are directed.

- A journalist shall not accept any inducement from a politician or candidate.

- A journalist shall not make any promise to a politician about the content of a news report.

- A journalist shall take care in reporting the findings of opinion polls. Any report should wherever possible include the following information:

- who commissioned and carried out the poll and when

- how many people were interviewed, where and how were they interviewed and what is the margin of error

- what was the exact wording of the questions.

- A journalist shall regard the following as grave professional offences:

- plagiarism

- malicious misrepresentation

- telling lies, slander, libel or unfounded accusations

- acceptance of a bribe in any form in consideration of either publication or suppression.

Media houses

Media houses have a vital role in ensuring fairness in the dissemination of information. The people have the right to know what all the candidates are standing for and not just those that the media house owners might support.

- In all media, there shall be a clear separation between fact and comment. News reporting should reflect the facts as honestly perceived by journalists. Comment may reflect the editorial line of the publication.

- State-owned media shall not express an editorial opinion in favour of or against any candidate.

- State-owned media have a duty to be balanced and impartial in their election reporting and not to discriminate against any candidate in granting access to air time.

- If media houses accept paid political advertising, they shall do so on a non-discriminatory basis and at equal rates for all candidates.

- News, interviews, information or current affairs programmes or articles in the state media shall not be biased in favour of or against any candidate.

- The media shall provide equitable and regular coverage to all candidates.

- The media shall encourage and provide access to the voters to express their opinion and views.

- The media shall promote democratic values such as the rule of good law, accountability and good governance.

- Any candidate or party that makes a reasonable claim of having been defamed or otherwise injured by a broadcast or publication shall either be granted the opportunity to reply or be entitled to a correction or retraction by the broadcaster or publisher or by the person who made the allegedly defamatory statement. The reply or correction shall be broadcast or published as soon as possible.

- News coverage of press conferences and public statements concerning matters of political controversy (as opposed to functions of state) called or made by the head of government, government ministers, or members of parliament shall be subject to a right of reply or equal time rules. This obligation acquires even greater force when the person making the statement is also standing for office.

- State-owned media shall publish or broadcast voter education material.

- Voter education material shall be accurate and impartial and must effectively inform voters about the voting process, including how, when and where to vote, to register to vote and to verify proper registration; the secrecy of the ballot (and thus safety from retaliation); the importance of voting; the functions of the offices that are under contention; and similar matters.

- Voter education shall include programmes in minority languages and programmes targeted for groups that traditionally may have been excluded from the political process, such as women and people with disabilities.

- Media houses should monitor their own output to make sure that it conforms with the standards set out in this code of conduct.

Candidates

Codes of conduct in election coverage in other African states recognise that political parties contest elections. In Swaziland, which is not a democracy, political parties are banned. The kingdom has its own unique form of 'democracy' which only allows candidates to stand for election as individuals.

The purpose of this draft code of conduct for Swaziland is to deal with the elections that will take place in 2013. It is highly unlikely that there will be a change of heart among the kingdom's ruling elite before the elections are held, so we must assume that candidates will not be aligned to any political party. Therefore, this code of conduct is addressed to individuals; although it would apply equally to political parties should they be allowed to exist.

All candidates shall respect the freedom of the media.

- Candidates shall not harass or obstruct journalists who are engaged in their professional activities.

- Incumbent candidates shall not abuse their office to gain unfair advantage in access to the media. This provision applies to all media, but is of particular relevance with state-controlled media.

- Candidates shall not offer bribes or inducements to journalists or media houses to encourage them to attend campaign events or to report favourably on them or unfavourably on other candidates.

- Candidates should not misrepresent the stated positions or any other factual information about other candidates.

- Candidates should avoid using language that is inflammatory or defamatory, or that threatens or incites violence against any other person or group.

Swaziland Needs Election Code of Conduct for Journalists by Swazi Media

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