Panel Three: Media, Elections and Post-Election Contests
Listen or Download the full audio recording of PANEL THREE here
In Panel 3, Media, Elections and Post-Election Contests, Nicholas Cheeseman [Professor of International Development, U/Birmingham] and Seth Ouma [U/Oxford] summarized their research and findings in successive Kenyan elections. Based on extensive interviews with journalists who had covered both elections, as well as the post-election violence in the country after December 2016, they concluded that Kenyan journalists were, and are, confronted by multiple pressures: from government sources, opposition criticism, public lack of support, and from within their own media organisations, influenced by politicised ethnicity and the highly charged election campaigns.
Irene Ovonji Odida [Executive Director, Executive Director, Uganda Association of Women Lawyers] a highly experienced Commonwealth election monitor, analysed the role and place of the media in the 2016 Ugandan Presidential election. Although Uganda has courageous journalists and a range of media outlets, there are deep structural challenges and constraints. She described important shifts in Uganda since 1995 which have influenced this: the neo-liberal environment stemming from the Washington consensus which has led to a lack of control over media rights; changes in the constitution, resulting in the emergence of the neo-patrimonial regime and centralisation of Presidential power; the growing inequalities across Ugandan society despite overall growth; and the connections between the domestic and international economic and political elite, involved in the most lucrative sectors of the economy. Consequently, the three arms of the state do not function as they should. The 2016 elections were the first in which national NGOs and external observers found the electoral process to be flawed. There has been a progressive curtailment of media freedom (state exploitation of the criminal code, and harassment of journalists; restrictions on licences; blocking of social media; break-ins). Furthermore, commercialisation of the media sector has resulted in access to citizens and dissemination of information depended on money. The rise of social media - potentially another avenue of debate – has not resulted in energetic and engaged debate, since liberalisation has impacted directly on education, and consequently limited critical understanding of the issues and wider drivers.
Kayode Samuel [Associate Fellow, ICWS] analysed the media in Nigeria following the 2011 and 2015 elections. Here the debate concerned the media’s role as instigator or victim. In part, this dates back to the position of the media as the creation of colonial rule, and consequently a long held hostility of governments post-independence to its role and the associated freedom of the press. This combines with the legacy of long years of military rule. The 2011 elections, the first time in which a Presidential candidate from a non-traditional group (the Delta) had presented himself for election, introduced a strong element of novelty into Nigerian politics and electioneering. This challenged strong political power groups who were hostile to this innovation. The violence which erupted around the election could be traced directly to this. The media’s response further aggravated matters, through the use of phrases such as ‘power shift’, which were not comfortable narratives for traditionally dominant groups. In 2015 there was another innovation in Nigerian politics: the first time in which an incumbent was challenged by a grand national coalition, and in which he was defeated. Again, the media has been affected by these big political shifts. As an umbrella ‘organisation’, the independence it used to claim has been chipped away. In the same sense of Nigeria’s political transition from military rule, there have been some transitions in the media: the old media barons (media ownership is still relatively national) are no longer as effective as they used to be in calling the government to account. The perception on the streets is that the fourth estate has moved from ‘watch dog’ to ‘lap dog’. This seemingly cosy, partisan relationship between the media and the government has been underpinned by the transition of many journalists into public life. In contrast, the emergence of the internet has opened up space for information and debate, and social media is becoming a very strong force. This is likely to be critical in the 2019 elections, as politicians are keenly aware, and there is growing discussion on whether online media should be controlled. As the Nigerian political economy is still largely controlled by the state, there is a lot riding on the persona of the President. Therefore for Commonwealth observers, it is important to note that Nigeria is different: the election event is different from the electoral process, and greater resources and time devoted to Commonwealth monitoring teams in country.
Dan Branch [University of Warwick] as discussant pointed out that the liberal internationalist narrative of freedom of speech and freedom of the media is under pressure globally, and not simply from government authoritarianism or strident populism. The debate includes those in wider society who argue that it stimulates political turbulence and dissent, and therefore is in itself potentially socially disruptive and counter-productive; and among some journalists themselves (e.g. Kenya). There has also been a fetishisation of stability by foreign stakeholders, with emphasis on a ‘peace narrative’. Therefore, freedom of the press was not, and is not necessarily seen as a priority by a considerable number of domestic and international actors. The vulnerability of journalists to multiple pressures is noted, not least the precarious nature of their jobs. Is too much expected of journalists when other institutions are so fragile? In terms of social media, the relationship between governments across Africa and telecommunication companies has to be remembered.
The issue was raised of how much traction the Commonwealth actually has – as a values based association, or in its election monitoring role. How much leverage does it have, faced with government resistance to any impingement upon state sovereignty? Should there be insistence on implementing the recommendations in election monitoring reports? The positive contribution of the Commonwealth of external validation of what local observers are saying was underlined, as solidarity is an important and underestimated factor to local actors. The aspect of South/South validation of best practice, and cross-Commonwealth learning experiences are also crucial. However, there is an important need for the Commonwealth to track the media in the election process from one election to the next – ie. over the longer term - thereby providing a stronger and more supportive framework. This could be done in collaboration with local groups, who can follow developments. It is important to remember decentralized local media is just as prone to capture by local politicians, as national media, and local and national elites are increasingly savvy on how to use, and manipulate polls.
In her keynote lecture, Secretary General Patricia Scotland responded to a number of key themes discussed at the conference. She warmly welcomed the possibility of a civil society-inspired process of creating a Commonwealth model on the media and governance, akin to the 2004 Latimer House Principles. She also stressed the advantages of working towards Commonwealth guidelines on media and elections, and a commitment to international norms and standards in the field. The full text of SG Scotland’s keynote address is available here and the video recording is available to watch or download here.