Election press coverage for Tuesday 21 April 2009, the day before the elections, focused on the IEC’s readiness for the elections, and included various pieces in newspapers on the voting process. However, voters are unlikely to have been assisted in making their decision by media’s failure to adopt a citizens’ agenda in their election coverage.  Media Monitoring Africa offers an overview on how media performed on various challenges posed in covering elections.

Media have generally provided citizens with encouragement to vote and provided reasons why it is important that they do so.  This has been the case especially in the last two weeks’ coverage.

Newspapers for the day that encouraged people to vote were:
• Daily Sun, p. 1 (editorial);
• The Citizen, p. 6;
• The Times, p. 18;
• The Star, p. 14; and,
• Sowetan, p. 1 (comment).

Ensuring confidence in the election process, if appropriate:
Not only do elections need to be free and fair, but they need to be seen to be free and fair, and citizens must be confident in the process to cast their vote.  The on the day before the election, there has been prominent coverage of the IEC’s assurances that the elections will run smoothly and additional police will be present in trouble spots.  However, previous coverage has been typified by an absence in follow-up on the various claims by political parties about allegations of bribes for votes, improper use of food parcels, intimidation or unfair electioneering practices. In the lead up to the vote tomorrow, it is still unclear whether these allegations have merely been an electioneering tactic by the parties concerned or whether there is substance to these allegations.

The IEC’s statement they are ready for the elections and that plans are in place for hotspots was covered in:
• Business Day, p. 1 and 2;
• The Citizen, p. 3;
• The Times, p. 1 and 4;
• The Star, p. 1, 3 and 15; and,
• Sowetan, p. 4 and 6.

Informing citizens about the democratic system and voting:
Previous coverage has been notable for the absence of information on how South Africa’s democracy works, including basic voter education, as well as the relevance and or importance if any of by-elections that have been taking place.  As of the weekend, however, print media have informed people about how to vote and how our system works.  This has been accomplished with easy-to-understand diagrams and explanations, and in the case of the Daily Sun, with a cartoon series.  Hopefully South Africans will consult the weekend or the day’s papers before voting to help ensure that they make an informed vote.

“How to vote” covered in:
• Daily Sun, p. 15, 16, 25 and 26 (cartoon continued from previous day);
• The Citizen, p. 6;
• The Star, p. 3;
• Sowetan, p. 10.

Fair and balanced coverage:
An article in the Business Day discusses how media have not taken a stance in these elections (Editor’s indecision is final, p. 4).  This is consistent with MMA’s monitoring findings that election items to date are overwhelmingly fair (Over 97% of all items monitored thus far).  However, coverage of parties has been dominated by the four parties of ANC, Cope, the DA, and the IFP who garnered around 80% of all party coverage.  The impact of this coverage is that in addition to there being little coverage of the other smaller parties, voter knowledge and information as presented through the news media is also limited.  Although there is good reason to give prominent coverage to these parties, it has also had the effect of limiting the options for voters as they may not otherwise know about all the other parties.  Again, however it should be noted that there appears to have been an increase in coverage of some of the smaller parties in this last weekend’s coverage in particular.

Adopting a citizen’s agenda
While several print media have taken a decision not to openly support and campaign for parties, the majority of media coverage has been dominated by the agenda’s of a few political parties, rather than pitting parties against the expectations and needs of citizens.  While such coverage has been largely in line with common news agendas, news values coverage of key issues such as service delivery, HIV/AIDS, health, gender-based violence, women, children, education and youth has been very limited.  Voters have not had a great deal of information on which to select parties based on policies which they felt particularly strong about.  Again, there has been an improvement in the weekend coverage and the day’s coverage, though perhaps it is a case of too little too late
Professor Tawana Kupe, Dena of Humanities at Wits University had this to say about the role of the media in elections:
“Journalists need to take the point of view of the voter not the politicians or political party.  Media need to probe the veneer, cost the various manifestos and coverage should go from the point of asking what does the voter need to know and what do they not know.” Tawana Kupe.

For more information please contact William Bird on 082 887 1370 or 011 788 1278.

The Daily Reports are made possible by the Open Society Foundation and the Free Voice Foundation

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) has monitored every democratic election in South Africa. This year we are doing the same, providing daily and weekly reports on media coverage of election news, as well as MMA’s Election Media Ratings

The following media are reviewed in the compilation of this report: Business Day, Daily Sun, Sowetan, The Citizen, and The Star and The Times.