Malawi media cautioned on opinion polls ahead of 2014 tripartite elections

As Malawi draws nearer its first ever tripartite elections next year, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) has urged the country’s media to be watchful when reporting opinion polls to avoid misleading the public.

MEC Deputy Chief Elections Officer, Harris Potani, said during elections period many pollsters come to light some with questionable credentials and dubious poll statistics that manipulate minds.

The deputy CEO was speaking Wednesday in Mzuzu when he opened an elections reporting training for over 30 media practitioners drawn from the Northern Region.

During the two-and-half day training, some senior media houses’ representatives are also expected to sign the media code of conduct for reporting the tripartite elections 2014.

Potani officially opening the media training in Mzuzu- Photo by Lucky Mkandawire, Nyasa Times.

Potani officially opening the media training in Mzuzu- Photo by Lucky Mkandawire, Nyasa Times.

Potani said some of the opinions published in the local media have potential impact of discouraging the electorate from participating in the electoral activities and perpetuate voter apathy.

“We urge you to question such characters [pollsters] before publicizing their results… Always ask them to disclose how they carried out their opinion polls, their sample size, who commissioned the opinion poll and when it was done,” said Potani.

The MEC official observed that questioning such pollsters could unearth vital information for journalists to establish whether such a particular opinion poll was bogus or genuine.

He said the media were a crucial partner in elections and MEC was eager to see them discharging their roles in a professional manner and address all competency gaps.

“That is why we have lined up a number of training workshops aiming at equipping our stakeholders with knowledge and skills.”

Potani also noted that the media reach out to a wider audience within a short time as such they have a critical role of bringing electoral information to the public in a manner that does not disadvantage or project any contestant.

“Otherwise, if the media do not offer a level playing field for all contestants, this approach can easily undermine all the efforts by the Malawi Electoral Commission and all stakeholders to have free, fair and credible elections next year. This would be a disservice to the Malawian populace,” he said.

He also appealed to the journalists to exercise reason and rationale in their reporting as elections are an emotive exercise because of what is always at stake.

“No one goes into an election expecting to lose although the fact still stands out that there will always be only one winner in an election. You should be cautious that the material you broadcast or publish does not perpetrate hostility, violence, aggression, hatred, tribalism, unrest, conflict or anything that falls in this class,” he said.

He gave examples of how media’s work, without exercising caution in their reportage, had fueled electoral disputes resulting in civil unrests and loss of life in the Rwandan genocide and recently, during the 2007 Kenya elections.

“The media had a portion of their blame for the aftermath violence that erupted. We would not want such scenarios for Malawi and that is why we are conducting trainings like this one that will enable you report effectively about elections,” he stated.

MEC has taken a cycle approach to elections management in the sense that it no longer treats elections as an event that takes place once every five years but as a cycle of five years.

Media practitioners have also been advised to adopt the same cycle approach to their reporting about elections through coming up with special programmes (radios), columns in newspapers and special supplements during elections time, among others, which generally disappear after polling and determination of winners.

Talking about the new media such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and other platforms that have become effective and cost effective tools for communication, the deputy CEO urged those responsible to apply ethics and standards when using them.

Lead facilitator for the training, Dr Levi Zeleza Manda of the University of Malawi’s Polytechnic, said journalists must always apply neutrality, objectivity, thoroughness, fairness and equity in contestant treatment.

“Journalists are expected to give equitable coverage of all sides and always analyse all party and candidates’ manifestos without looking at the personality or their prominence,” he said.

This is the third training the commission is organising for the media as part of the capacity building ahead of the tripartite elections next year.

Some of the participants to the training- Photo by Lucky Mkandawire, Nyasa Times.

Some of the participants to the training- Photo by Lucky Mkandawire, Nyasa Times.

Malawi News Agency journalist Sarah Munthali following a presentation- Photo by Lucky Mkandawire, Nyasa Times.

Malawi News Agency journalist Sarah Munthali following a presentation- Photo by Lucky Mkandawire, Nyasa Times.

Some of the journalists at the training following the proceedings- Photo by Lucky Mkandawire, Nyasa Times.

Some of the journalists at the training following the proceedings- Photo by Lucky Mkandawire, Nyasa Times.

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