Thursday, December 11, 2014

'Media Practitioners, Media Houses in Malawi Should Stick to Codes of Conduct'

As Malawians eagerly await the announcement of Tripartite Elections results by the Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec), attention has suddenly turned on media practitioners, who are expected to lead the nation towards the path of sobriety during this tense political period. Our reporter RICHARD CHIROMBO caught up with Media Council of Malawi Board Chairperson, Prof. Wiseman Chijere Chirwa, on media performance and other issues. Excerpts:

Media practitioners pride themselves in being independent and objective. However, of late, we have seen media managers and associations calling on journalists to side with Mec in its endeavour to administer free, fair and credible elections. Doesn’t this entail throwing media independence to the wind?

Our starting point should be: What does the law say? The law provides that the body mandated to manage elections in Malawi is the Mec. There is no other body. So, if media houses and individuals support it, bias can’t come in because media houses are simply being consistent with the legal provisions. The law provides that Mec should work freely, without undue interference from anyone, including the media. We are, therefore, calling for political parties to back off, and give Mec space to work within the confines of the law. In a nutshell, siding with Mec cannot be construed as bias; it simply means we are being consistent with the law. We want Constitutional bodies such as Mec to be seen to be working as provided for in the laws.


          The political weather is hot, the citizens are anxious and, inevitably, the media cannot
          escape the heat. What should be the role of media houses and practitioners in
          upholding democratic principles?

In terms of the actual work of media practitioners and houses, they should stick to codes of conduct that guide them. For instance, we have the Malawi Media Code of Conduct on elections as well as the Media Council of Malawi’s Code of Conduct that regulate the work of journalists. All these codes of conduct rally against partisan reporting, sensational reporting, mixing opinion with facts, and cheque book journalism being used as tools of propagating the lines of others. If we do this, there will be objectivity, credibility. It’s actually dangerous for media practitioners and houses to actually get out of what is provided for in the Code of Conduct and behave as youth wings of political parties.

Some things are better said than done. How can these ideals be realised, practically?

Journalists can cover the elections, or any activity associated with the elections, so long as they ensure that they back themselves with facts, figures. They should always separate personal opinion from facts. They can comment, but they should base their comments on evidence. They should draw a line between an assessment based on personal view and that based on people’s views.

Then, there is the issue of extending the electoral calendar. One school of thought has it that Mec can seek an extension from the courts, while another school of thought is propagating that only the Parliament can do that. The media is caught in the maze of these arguments and counterarguments. Which side should they (media) lean on?

(They should lean on the side of) the law. The law provides for the Elections’ Calendar. The Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act, the Local Government Elections Act- which, I understand, was amended- provide for an elections’ calendar.  The law mandates Mec to announce the results within eight days, plus an allowance of 72 hours. So, as long as Mec is working within its calendar, there is no wrong committed. If there is need for an extension (to the calendar), it should not be done in conflict with the electoral calendar, which is in line with the law. In which case, Mec needs to move a motion, appear before the courts. But, again, the calendar cannot be extended beyond what is provided for in the law. However, if Mec officials want to amend a specific provision; that is the role of Parliament. Otherwise, Mec can extend voting to within seven days of the electoral calendar. For example, if the elections were scheduled for May 20, they can extend them to 23rd May or 24th May, so long as it is within seven days of the electoral calendar. We have had such cases before. In 1999, for example, the date had to be changed. In which case, Mec has to provide material evidence that there is a risk to the elections but, still, this must be within the timeframe.

            What about the issue of vote recount?
Our starting point should be: Who is mandated to manage the electoral process? It is Mec. And, so, it should be Mec seeing the need for recounting. A motion should emanate from Mec, providing reasons and evidence. The evidence must be adequate, credible. The recount can be in various degrees: Recount in the sense that, as you are counting, you make a mistake and you want to cross-check; a recount where you sealed ballot boxes, and you want to open them again; partial recount, to verify results that affect part of the electorate; or a total recount, in case the entire electoral process is affected. In all cases, the body mandated is Mec, and what matters is the gravity of evidence. Even with a recount, there is a possibility that the elections will be compromised. In short, recounting establishes credibility of election results; it’s not just about who has won or lost.

What lessons can media practitioners and the nation draw from Malawi’s first Tripartite Elections?
The first lesson is that the First-Past-The-Post system, much as it is simple, is very problematic in closely-contested elections. I think the 50+1 provision would have solved all these problems because the winner and the runner up would have been announced by now. The second lesson is that, when the Constitution was being framed, we never anticipated that we would have problems of this nature. Who would have imagined that electoral results would be challenged before they are even announced?  Again, there is no provision on nullification of elections in case of massive irregularities. Surely, it can’t be the incumbent president resolving these issues. And, certainly, it can’t be the courts settling each and every issue.

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