Elections are of great importance to the future of the country such as Kenya which will hold its first general elections under the new constitution in 2012. All journalists and media practitioners have a great role to play in ensuring that the media set the agenda, shape public opinion and offer a forum upon which the masses can engage with each other and hold their leaders to account. Besides, the media’s watchdog role will be critical in exposing the excesses of those in power in the use of state resources.
Journalists should be aware that they have an important function to operate as political pundits: analyze a given statement made by a politician and probe into particular story angles affecting a politician or a political party. The key role of the journalist is to dig for the facts and bring to the light anything that happens in the public domain and which the electorate should know in order to make informed judgments.
Traditionally, the mass media have been understood with reference to printed press, radio and television. Due to technological advances, the definition has broadened encompassing the Internet in its various forms and other new forms of electronic distribution of news, entertainment such as short message services (SMS) to mobile phones. Therefore, the mass media in its broadest sense publicize democratic elections. It should be emphasized that a free and fair election is not only about casting a vote in proper conditions, but also having adequate information about parties, policies, candidates and the election process itself so that voters are assisted in making the wisest decisions. In fact, it has been argued that a democratic election with no media freedom would be a contradiction in terms. For instance, political parties and candidates try to make themselves visible on television as it is widely regarded as the most important medium for campaigning and communicating to the voters in countries with widespread coverage and audience.
It should be noted that the media are not the sole source of information for voters, but in a world dominated by mass communications, it is increasingly the media that determine the political agenda, even in less technologically developed corners of the globe. Thus, election observation teams, for example, now routinely comment upon media access and coverage of elections as a criterion for judging whether elections are free and fair. In parallel, monitoring the media during election periods has become an increasingly common practice, using a combination of statistical analysis and the techniques of media studies and discourse analysis to measure whether coverage has been fair.
The single guiding principle underlying the role of the media in elections is that without media freedom and pluralism, democracy is not possible. This has been underlined in the decisions of numerous international tribunals. It was also stated by the United Nations Special Reporter on Freedom of Expression, who elaborated a series of steps that governments should take to guarantee freedom of media during elections - freedom from censorship; freedom from arbitrary attack or interference; free access to necessary information and pluralism of voices in the media. The last of these is especially important. It is often interpreted to mean that the media should be owned by a variety of different interests, resulting in a “market-place of ideas”. There are allegaions that during the 2007 elections, media coverage was biased towards certain candidates and political parties, negating the right of voters to make informed choices, the right of candidates to put their policies across and the right of the media to report and express their views on matters of public opinion. The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which apply at all times, and not only when there is an election pending. But it is the very formality of the election process - the fact that it is conducted according to procedures that are clearly set out in law - that has stimulated the interest of those who are concerned with issues of media freedom. How far media freedom and pluralism are respected during an election period can be a fairly sensitive index of respect for freedom of expression in general - itself an essential precondition for a functioning democracy. Conversely, an election can be an ideal opportunity to educate both the authorities in their obligation to respect and nurture media freedom and the media in their responsibility to support the democratic process.
The most detailed guidelines produced by the United Nations reflecting best international practice on pluralism and access to the media were those issued by the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia. These stated: “An independent and free media should have a diversity of ownership, and it should promote and safeguard democracy, while opening opportunities and avenues for economic, social and cultural development.”
In view of these extensive analysis and views by various tribunals and experts, are the media in Kenya independent and free with a diversity of ownership to enable them promote and safeguard democracy while opening opportunities for economic, social and cultural development? Or is it time the media council, the media owners and key stakeholders in the media industry in Kenya came together and assess the readiness of the Kenyan media in ensuring that the 2012 general elections will be free and fair.