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Media and the elections

The National Assembly is dissolved. The ministers and member of parliaments have changed their colours (kabney).

Soon they will be out in the fields campaigning. It is should be exciting to be in the media.

With two rounds of elections lined up, it is going to be a busy autumn for the Election Commission of Bhutan. So is it for the media. There is so much to look forward to. The role of these two institutions becomes more important until we ensure successful – free and fair- elections.

With experience of conducting and covering two rounds of local government and parliamentary elections, both the commission and the media are better off than they were in 2008. They have gained experience, learnt lessons and are more prepared to conduct and cover elections.

The mood is that the third round of elections will be a smooth sailing. It should be given that all of us are experienced in handling this important task.

Media plays an important role. It is through the coverage of candidates, their campaigns and promises, the issue that shapes candidates and their campaigns, that help people make decision. To fulfil that role, media also invest a lot in election reporting. At a time when mainstream media are challenged with resources, covering elections from the 20 dzongkhags is an expensive affair. If not for the mandate of covering this important process of democracy, they would happily rely on hand outs or press releases.

The media needs support. Support here doesn’t mean through resources. The best support for media would be letting them do their job or not making them uneasy to even report on election events, forget analysis and investigations.  The feeling among the media, in the aftermath of the Council elections, is that authorities are getting over-excited. It is unwise to tell media what they can or not cover as long as it is in the interest of the public and done professionally. Should media be answerable, it is the citizens they should be answerable to. At the same time they should have a clearer understanding of their responsibilities.

Media will be guided and monitored. But telling them not to reflect details like voter count or past records of candidates contradicts what editors or media managers tell their foot soldiers, the reporters. One of the daily mantras of editors, when briefing reporters out on assignment, is to get the details. It is the job of those covering politics or elections to report as much of the whole picture as possible. If possible, analyse and explore the various facets of the candidates, the campaigns and the issues that shape them and not the horse-race aspect of the contest. It is through detailed coverage that media educate the voters. When information is murky, we vote on factors like peer pressure or family network.

 

Setting the tone

With four political parties gearing for the 2018 elections, there will be a lot of activities. The media can set the tone and help ensure a smooth transition.

Those covering elections will not disagree that Assembly elections are more exciting to cover. This is because media can focus on juicy news – news that sells! In journalistic term, they call it “what bleeds lead.” The controversy and allegation excite both journalists and readers. And readers demand more of it. The electoral process so far in Bhutan had been different from what we witness worldwide. There are no pressures like threats and violence, voters are not coerced or attacked during the electoral process. Hate speeches and mud-slinging are disallowed by electoral laws, bribery is forbidden and the government fund the election campaign ensuring a level playing field for all political parties.

However, it was not without our share of problems. The vigorous campaigning by the excited party workers, in the past, had divided villages and communities into party camps.  There were accusation and allegation of bribery, of signing up membership by force or taking advantage of innocence.

 

Assembly election

The 2018 Assembly election looks competitive with four political parties. This presents a good choice for the voters. There had already been some skirmishes among the parties. The media has lent the platform. Some are already blaming the media for failing to moderate the hate messages. Even as the serious politicking mood sets in, it is the responsibility of the media to set the tone.  In the rush for ‘good’ stories- good stories during election are always the negative stories, media could fuel hatred, rivalry and even violence among political parties. This is not good for democracy, especially in Bhutan.

A new trend in the media is the popularity of fake news. With social media providing the platform, everybody has become a source of news.

One mistake mainstream media could make is competing with social media to break news. The rush to publish could mean publishing unverified allegations and challenges and the assertions by politicians could become news without having checked. The good thing about social media users today is that they wait for the traditional media to cross check information. However, the danger that young reporters could be carried away by negative campaigns hurled on social media still lurks, especially if it is spread by seasoned journalists hired by political parties.

Media will have to cover allegations and controversy. They should not be at pains to paint or emphasise messages of peaceful elections when the ground reality is different. This can be done by adhering to the principles of truth, accuracy, independence and fairness. Political parties are banking on their “seasoned” candidates and leaders.  In an election, it is the issue that concerns the voters and not personalities. If media can focus on issues, we can avoid the controversies. If it is for the greater good of a free and fair election, to prevent a divided society on political party lines, media shouldn’t hesitate self-censoring in terms of information and images they present. In the excitement of covering allegations and controversies, media often tend to forget that there are good things happening in the communities or among political parties. The good stories should not be forgotten, if not flashed on the cover page.

 

Responsible Journalists

There are already allegations that some Bhutanese journalists are aligned to political party. The smallness of our society complicates this. An editor or a reporter could be quickly linked to a party or a member. Some of the politicians are good at establishing relationships and make the editor the niece or nephew or an in-law of a candidate.

With this in the background, a major responsibility is placed on the media themselves. We know that we work in an extremely sensitive society, where the line between professional and personal perspectives is often confused. Social media is making it a bigger challenge for the journos. For instance, what they post on social media could be seen as blurring the lines between the professional and the personal. The fairness or impartiality expected from a journalist could be seen as compromised when they openly express their political preferences or even hint at it.

There will be a lot of pressure on the media. One source of this pressure will be from gossip and rumour, which still is more powerful than the formal media. The readers would want media to dig more. So is it with the political parties.

In the relationship between politicians and media, there is a good understanding that media should dig and uncover unwanted activities. Unfortunately most would be happy if the reporter did the digging and investigation only into the activities and positions of their opponent, not theirs.

Media will be accused of being too critical of one party and not reporting enough on the other. It is here that the media should remember its guiding principles.

 

 

Contributed by 

Ugyen Penjor

The author is the publishing editor with Kuensel

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