Electoral integrity & key roles of media and election observers

Published : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018 at 12:00 AM

We have often talked about the roles of people, leaders, government, political parties or election commission in elections, especially in a democracy. But the media and the election observers have to also play key roles in such events. With the 11th national election of Bangladesh in a month, different stakeholders have already started playing their parts which can be very vital in the outcome of that election.

Though we just observe media as the news provider of elections but the role is much more which is similar in the case of election observers too. We do not realize much of their impact but they actually play the role of ‘watchdogs’ in an election. Hence, considering the sensitivity of the next election on Dec 30, they need to perform a critical job in ensuring everyone performing their duties with responsibility as well as confirming the acceptance of the polls both inside and outside of Bangladesh.
The single guiding code underlying the role of the media in elections is that without media freedom, democracy is not possible. The media play an obligatory role in the proper operation of a democracy. Discussion of the media’s functions within electoral contexts often focuses on their ‘watchdog’ role by free inspection and discussion of the successes and failures of candidates, governments and electoral management bodies.

The media can inform the public of how effectively a party or a candidate have performed and help to hold them to account. Yet the media also have other roles in enabling full public participation in elections. The media are not the lone resource 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 countries like Bangladesh.

Due to media’s importance, election observation teams routinely comment upon media access and coverage of elections as a criterion for judging whether elections are fair. Monitoring the media during election periods has become an increasingly common practice as they use a mixture of statistical study and historical reports with dialogue analysis to assess media’s role in an election. Hence, during an election media can be identified as a tool to ensure transparency; as a campaign platform; as open forum for debate and discussion; as promoter of public voice and as public educator.

In today’s politics and society at large, media is essential to the conservation of lucidity in democratic processes. Transparency is required on many levels including for access to information; accountability and legitimacy of individuals, institutions and processes themselves; and rightful participation and public debate. Media acts as a mechanism for the prevention and investigation of allegations of violations or malpractice. But everything of that is given to the fact if media are guaranteed with full measures of protecting freedom of speech and that media are free to act independently as well as with neutrality. Media are vital in ensuring a translucent public platform for debate and participation in the discussion. Candidates and Parties have an explicit right to provide the people information regarding their attributes, political agendas and proposed plans. Besides meeting directly with the people, candidates and parties accomplish this task through campaigns via media. It is vital to democratic electoral processes that all candidates and parties are provided equal access to media for this venture.

Media must practice balanced reporting, ensuring that candidates receive fair coverage. Media professionalism and media literacy are also fundamental to play this role. While candidate and campaigns of a particular party needs to reach the people, there are also other voices in need to be heard. As preserved in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all people have the right to express opposing ideas and opinions.

Media’s role as public educator is also highly important especially in the least developed countries like Bangladesh where the literacy rate of the voters creates a challenge itself. Fighting this challenge of illiteracy of the citizens tremendously signifies the contribution of media at all sectors. As a campaign platform media ensures the public is educated about the political agenda, election manifestos and commitments of all participating parties and candidates.

Though media often discloses different information of the candidates prior to the election but unfortunately they are not found to disclose the electoral affidavit or financial details of a candidate much. Bangladesh being tangled in the shackles of the corruption, it is very important that the people understands the financial standing of their leaders. It is important to analyze the rise in the asset of the leaders while they were in power. Hardly any media talks about these though to portray the image of a leader, it is very important.

Here, it is notable that, despite our leaders from the ruling party Awami League and the opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) being very attacking and disrespectful to their counterparts, they very often speak over the corruption check or disclosure of the financial standings of each other. They do not want the media to run reports on their opponents in such matters. This is due to their fear of being on the same boat.

But for the people to understand if a leader is going to bring any substantial welfare to their society or community, it is important to see how their leaders’ wealth is growing over time. Hence, the media should be active in tracing out and disclosing information like; electoral affidavit and financial standing of the candidates. They should disclose reports on the financial growth of a candidate and if that justifies with the financial growth of his constituency. A leader’s financial growth should not be many times higher than his constituency’s. Source of leader’s actual wealth should be made public by the media. In light of the recent scenario, the media have been in fight with the laws, the government and the law enforcers over their freedom and authority to work. With new laws, the scenario got pretty complex. Hence, a lot is to be proved in terms of media’s roles in the upcoming election.

Remarkably, current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had created a great opportunity for the expansion of media which led towards so many television channels, radio channels, newspapers, magazines and online news sites while promoting involvement of private sector in this area in Bangladesh. We must thank her for this infrastructural support towards media’s growth. Gradually now we expect her focus and support in ensuring and promoting effective media performance while strengthening democratic practices.

Other than Media, the roles of election observers are also vital to ensure a free, fair and credible election in a democracy. Over the last three decades, a global faction of nonpartisan citizen election monitoring has jointly mobilized millions of citizens around the world to participate in their countries’ democratic processes as election observers.

Depending on the context, civil society might mobilize to observe an election in order to engage citizens in the election process; deter fraud; expose problems and irregularities; provide an accurate measure of the quality of the election; promote confidence in the process and outcomes; and provide recommendations for improving the process for the next election. But in a broad sense election observers actually help to ensure electoral integrity.

More than 200 citizen election observation organizations in over 80 countries together formed the Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors (GNDEM) in 2009. GNDEM is united by the Declaration of Global Principles for Nonpartisan Election Observation and Monitoring by Citizen Organizations which was launched at the United Nations in 2012 and has been endorsed by more than 245 citizen observer groups.

In the upcoming 11th national election in Bangladesh, hundreds of election observers from home and abroad will be present to provide their judgment on the integrity of the overall polling process. Their reports are very important even to the context of our foreign trade and investment. There is no way we can ignore their roles. But recently few rules were stated for them by the election commission like; no talk, comment and live interview to media; no mobile phones; no photo; irregularities to be informed to EC first and can publish report later; no entry to the polling booths; no act which can favour a candidate etc. Few of these rules might be a bit harsh towards the access and freedom of the election observers.

Standing only 32 days away, both Awami League and BNP with its alliance Jatiyo Oikyofront is actively moving towards the election. Considering the questions over the election of 2014, it is going to be both very sensitive and critical. The outcome will determine if Bangladesh will keep moving on its way of development or not. But till now, we, as people, are disheartened as like previous elections, this time also leaders with money, muscle and terror are mostly getting the nomination rather than their commitment to the people.

Hoping for the effective role of both media and election observers, we are looking forward to disclosure of candidates’ background, their electoral affidavits, their financial status and party election manifestos. We want the media to provide detail information in those areas and also urge the election observers to monitor those. In that way, we believe the media and election observers will be able to signify their responsibilities and Bangladeshi people will attain a government which will only work for their welfare and the country’s development.

The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and
Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)

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