The role of media in the general elections

Zamayirha Peter is a Communications Specialist with over eight years of experience in multimedia journalism and communications. Picture: Supplied

Zamayirha Peter is a Communications Specialist with over eight years of experience in multimedia journalism and communications. Picture: Supplied

Published May 13, 2024


A healthy functioning democracy is predicated on the electorate making informed choices, which in turn rests on the quality of information they receive.

The work of the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), tied by the gallant expressions of political parties and independent candidates campaigning for a seat in the national assembly and the regional and provincial legislatures, is incomplete without the presence of the members of the fourth estate, the media.

Since the dawn of South Africa’s 30 years of Democracy, the media has been used as a central and collective tool to facilitate not only the realisation of Democracy in South Africa but also the representation of all its facets.

Through the media, we have archives of the dire implications of colonialism and apartheid on the lived experiences of civilians and the continued consequences of systems established centuries ago.

Today, the media continues to have not only a constitutional mandate to uphold but it enjoys the privilege of access to diverse facets of society with the responsibility to accurately represent the lived experience of South Africans.

Benefiting from strong Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and a vibrant civil society, the South African media have contributed to a culture of robust democratic debate while playing a watchdog role. Notwithstanding the positive developments in the emerging democracy, the role of the South African media has also been strongly contested.

Compromised Media

In the last 30 years of Democracy, we have seen the misuse and sometimes the abuse of the media by public figures, the private sector, civil society and even ordinary civilians, when the media failed to authentic reports and postured them as newsworthy facts.

At times we have witnessed the involvement of journalists in otherwise compromising positions of their objectivity through the use of their platforms to reinforce a single narrative about particular communities in society, as well as particular individuals. This has not gone without a prominent impact on how the media is received collectively. This has at times led to the established precedence in some areas of society on who the media are and how they report on you, based on the particular group in society to which you belong to.

Some scholars have argued that the media itself bears the characteristics of the continuing severe socio-economic inequalities in the rest of South African society. This is especially seen as the case through the print media that has been accused of serving mostly an elite. Normative self-regulatory policy in the country has also been contested and has gone through several revisions in order to be more responsive to the needs of the developing South African society (Wasserman, 2020).

Reinforce the critical role of the Media

We cannot afford to, as a transitional democracy, create precedence and or a culture where audiences associate particular media houses as being a tool or machinery of news for particular groups. The integrity of our democracy is very much linked to the integrity of the Fourth Estate. The role of the press in disseminating information as a way of mediating between the state and all facets of civil society remains critical.

Ahead of the 2024 General election, the Independence Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), and the South African Editors Forum (SANEF), held a media workshop three weeks ahead of the General Election, during the workshop, Izak Minaar, emphasised the importance of media being factual and clear with what they report on the election.

Minaar highlighted the proposed four areas of focus on the election outcomes which reporters are to consider, these being; ‘the race for votes, the race for votes, the result analysis and the final results’. He also emphasised the importance of the media being informed, verifying their findings and responsibly report on the outcomes of the voting process.

The media plays a critical role as the watchdog, an entryway for the public to access institutions and platforms otherwise restricted to particle groups. It also serves as a notable and trusted source of information and as such has both a responsibility and constitutional mandate to represent the nature of South Africa’s democracy without bias.

We must create a culture where progressive and regressive views are held and demonstrated about the nature of our democracy as accurately as possible to the reality found in South Africa.

Citizen Journalists

Youth network activate change drives established a writer hub that has over 30 young people stationed across the country who report at the community level the lived realities of the communities. These young people have also received the notable attention of national media platforms that have seen their articles published across media houses.

Last year members of the Writers Hub received an in-person citizen journalism training at Wits University, where the marriage of civic duty, passion and skill found footing.

Support for the media

From this training, it became clear that we must hold the media and journalists accountable to uphold their platforms and the constitution of the Republic of South Africa. In the same breath, we must create an environment where the media and journalists are capacitated and supported in their efforts to tell the stories of South Africans.

In doing so, we will avoid cases of journalists being. Misinformation threatens the outcome of the 2024 election, fake news and false news dampen the efforts and integrity of the fourth estate which already stands challenged with the advent of technology and the digital era.

Supporting media as an institution requires an understanding of what constitutes the sector. The media sector consists is an institution that is beyond the specific outlets that deliver news and information.

While we reference many struggle stalwarts and give credit to them at varying levels for their influence of the country’s realisation of democracy, we must not ignore the efforts of Henry Nxumalo, Nat Nakasa, Ruth First, Juby Mayet, Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin, Noni Jabavu and Aggrey Klaaste, whose role as journalists made a significant in the advent of democracy.

It is in the same breath that it remains important for us to guard our democracy in all its facets, civil society organisations like ACTIVATE! Change Drivers have made a notable impact at the grassroots level, to garner the civic participation of South Africans in the democratic processes leading up to the exercise of their right to vote.

Similarly, the media which has access to information, has the task of not only educating citizens about the electoral process but also informing them accurately about the collective challenges and gains of this democracy.

Media activities should not be viewed in isolation from other areas of democracy and governance programs and understood to only be important in civil society programming.

Greater impact may be achieved by integrating media support into additional democracy and governance areas.

* Zamayirha Peter is a Communications Specialist with over eight years of experience in multimedia journalism and communications.

** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of IOL or Independent Media.