Reporting on elections is, for many journalists, an opportunity to establish themselves as reliable political reporters. But the task comes with certain risks, particularly in the East African sub-region.
Stakeholders are now calling for concerted efforts, better planning and preparations for journalists before they are sent out on the field to cover Kenya’s high-stakes August 9 General Elections.
At a recent media summit that brought together Katiba Institute, the Media Council of Kenya (MCK), and media practitioners in Nairobi, it emerged that media houses have not put adequate measures to protect their reporters as they go about elections coverage. Reporting on elections is considered one of the most challenging journalistic tasks in East Africa.
East Site compiled six tips that journalists could use while covering elections.
1.Training on electoral laws and Information access
Ahead of Kenya’s General Elections, the MCK noted that reporters and editors needed to be well-versed with elections timelines, processes, and laws.
This would enable them to report accurately and put the elections stakeholders to account. MCK said the council has already rolled out training workshops for political reporters and editors throughout the country to prepare them for the work ahead.
While emphasising the need for journalists’ access to information as elections beckon, Dinar Ondari, the Press Freedom, Safety and Advocacy manager at MCK, said they are concerned with reports of journalists being denied the right to access information.
“The public or the media should not be barred from parliamentary committees. Journalists’ work is to facilitate the free-flow of information. Media cannot set the agenda on the issues they do not know about. They have to be trained and empowered.”
Moreover, journalists need to understand and see the bigger picture.
“Election is a process, not an event; there are rules to be followed,” Florence Kajuju, the Chairperson of Commission on Administrative Justice in Kenya, noted.
She said the electoral process does not begin and end with the elections, adding that voter education is crucial and the media has a role to play in this.
“What does the electoral law say? Journalists deserve to know these laws and question the integrity of the political candidates.”
Francis Gachuri, a veteran political reporter, argued there is a need for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to make public all relevant information regarding the electoral process.
Gachuri regretted that some departmental committees barred journalists from covering their sessions on the pretext that the subject under discussion bordered on “national security” while, in reality, national interest was paramount hence the need to grant journalists access.
“The practicality is different; National Security is usually used as an excuse,” Gachuri said.
2. Stay safe, practice caution
Media houses and the state must ensure that all journalists covering elections feel safe in their environment. Reporters should be able to execute their mandate without fearing having to watch over their shoulders.
The forum encouraged media houses to work closely with security agencies to ensure they give the names of the crew covering elections, particularly in the so-called hot spots, to cushion them from unforeseen attacks.
In the past, journalists have been attacked while covering elections. Some have had their equipment destroyed or confiscated by a mob or even rogue security officers.
Oloo Janak, the Chairman of the Kenya Correspondents Association, says that violations against journalists during the election cycle are two-pronged.
“Violations can take place at two levels – at individual level of the journalists, ranging from assaults, dismissal and surveillance. The other level is the media organisation, which are targeted by the state machinery. They can include bans,” he said, drawing the example of Tanzania, where some media houses had their licences withdrawn.
Mary Daraja, a Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) producer, laments that most media houses have not taken the safety of journalists seriously.
“We (the media) have failed to prepare adequately,” Mary said, recalling that some media houses send journalists to the field without training in handling an emergency. “We have had cases where journalists have been beaten up by police, the same people who should be protecting them.”
3. Wear the correct protective gear
Since election disputes could turn ugly, journalists must have access and wear the proper protective gear. This includes, among others, a bulletproof vest and helmet with a visible MEDIA or PRESS print written on them.
Tom Jalio, a features editor at Radio Africa Group said such gear could go a long way in minimising the risks to journalists.
It is also essential to practice caution and not put oneself in harm’s way.
4. Collaboration with security agencies
Journalists must maintain their independence at all times, but the forum suggested working closely with security agencies while reporting on elections.
Dominic Kisavi, a police commissioner and head of the Election Security Secretariat, urged the media to work with the police while covering events that might trigger violence to ensure their safety.
“You’re safe on the police side. The Kenyan law requires everybody to get a license to acquire body armour,” he said, stressing the need for journalists to get a permit before purchasing body armour for use in such volatile circumstances.
“We’re training our officers and one of the things is to ensure every person is safe during elections and that includes the media. If a police officer acts in contravention of the law, we investigate and hold him to account even those involving (attack on) journalists,” he said.
5. Fairness and objective reporting
Elections are a highly emotionally-charged event, even for journalists. But according to Janak, the basics of journalism must always guide the reporter.
There are certain things the media has ignored in the past. For example, Kenyan media ‘turned a blind eye’ when the government deployed an ‘unnecessarily high number of security officers’ to some areas of the county, deemed as opposition bedrock, ahead of the disputed 2017 elections.
“We in the media have never been honest…there are gaps on how media ignore certain things and how they cover elections. We need a responsive leadership, on the need to tell Kenyans the truth, the type of leadership (newsroom) that does not retrieve to ethnic cocoons,” he said.
The East African media has previously been flagged for turning a blind eye to electoral injustices and killings of unarmed protesters in Kenya. Likewise, the media has been criticised in Tanzania and Uganda for going to bed with the state and not pointing out its excesses.
6. Briefing and debriefing
Briefing and debriefing are some cardinal rules in journalism and the newsroom. Reporters and camera persons ought to be briefed and debriefed by heads of departments or, in some cases, line editors and leaders of camera units before proceeding with assignments.
But during the workshop, it emerged that some media houses had thrown caution to the wind by sending out crew who were ill-prepared and without any vital briefs to help them navigate the tricky election environment.
These are only six tips the EAST Site put together for journalists covering elections. Do you have some more tips, join the discussion on social media handles (@AKUMediaFutures, www.facebook.com/AKUMediaFutures)
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