We live in a world where each one of us is bombarded with at least a few hundred messages every day. Switch on the television or flip open a newspaper and there’s one brand or the other selling everything from shampoo to happiness! Out in the streets gigantic hoardings insist why we should try a specific restaurant or a new, improved brand of tea. For those of us who have pre-paid cellular connections know too well the menace of a constantly beeping cell phone owing to “mobile advertisements”. Then of course there is the social media where in addition to the paid advertisements the status updates, tweets and even memes have become a way to disseminate messages aimed either at promoting products and services or inspiring some sort of behavioral change.
Why are we ranting on about the constant flow of messages and media? Glad you asked! In today’s blog we will discuss the many ways and means that media shapes our world view especially vis-à-vis elections – and why it has taken centre stage in the last couple of decades as an important source for educating voters.
Let’s first try to understand why a free and fair media is considered essential for free and fair elections. To cut a rather long dissertation short let’s put it this way: a free and fair election is not only about the freedom to vote and the knowledge of how to cast a vote, but also essentially about processes where voters engage in public debate and have adequate information about parties, policies, candidates and the election process itself in order to make informed choices. It is for this reason that the media is today considered a key actor to democratic elections, which on one hand provides eligible voters with information to make independent choices and on the other hand safeguards the transparency of the electoral process. Thus, a democratic election with no media freedom would make it very difficult to ascertain just how free and fair an election actually was.
Well, as Spiderman says, “With great power comes great responsibility” – thus it’s important to understand that media’s engagement in voter education as well as elections is not a one way road where media agencies only have to gather and provide a bunch of facts. In order to fulfill their roles, the media needs to maintain a high level of professionalism, accuracy and impartiality in their coverage. Regulatory frameworks, such as Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (PEMRA) can help ensure high standards. Such laws and regulations ensure freedom of information and expression while at the same time providing a code of ethics under which media outlets must operate.
The whole discussion about media ethics and regulatory authorities brings us to an important and emerging form of media, i.e. online journalism and social media. Citizen journalism is widely gaining popularity as it has provided average people with the power to share and disseminate information. In the 2013 general elections held in Pakistan we saw how images ranging from huge voter turnout to that of electoral rigging were picked up by conventional media only after they became viral on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.
However, since social media is still an emerging phenomenon a lot of information floating around on the internet cannot be verified. It is for this reason that conventional media must be careful before reporting anything taken from social media sources. This is especially important because a prime responsibility of media is to provide the voters with full and accurate information.
Media’s role in voter education is not merely restricted to providing information to potential voters but it also serves as a platform for interaction between the political parties as well as the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the public.
The Election Commission has a need to communicate information to the people and within general public to specific groups including the political parties, candidates, women, youth and minorities. Media then serves as an important tool for the ECP to reach out to its target audiences. Thus, both during the campaign phase and on the day of the elections itself, (much like the makers of shampoos and tea brands), the ECP uses media in a variety of ways to get its various messages through.
On the other hand the media too has a great deal of interest in the ECP. The media is interested in the information that the Election Commission has to provide and at the same time will try to scrutinize the ECP’s performance, efficiency and integrity of the elections.
The same formula also applies on the relationship between the media and various contesting political parties and candidates.
This two-way relationship collectively helps to keep the voters informed, engaged and encouraged to take part in the elections and safeguard against interference or corruption in the management or conduct of the electoral process.