Bordering on hysteria

 

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Category: Trinidad Politics 23 May 10



As I write, shrill sounds of campaign promises, bordering on hysteria of candidates, fill the air, whipping the nation into a frenzy, leaving exhausted reporters alternating between exhaustion and delight with the glut of news and sound bites. Earlier this week, I saw a journalist sitting with his heads in his hands at the end of a long, long day. When I asked him what was wrong, he replied: “Some people say I am PNM; others call the station to say I am UNC; some say I ignore the COP. “Others insist that I hate Hindus; others wonder why I am not Muslim. The Christians don’t identify with me, but don’t realise I am Christian.” “Great,” I said, with fellow feeling. “This means you’re doing your job.” Many years back, a professor of journalism at City University in London said something to our class that we never forgot.

 

The class, being young, opinionated, passionate about causes, (as budding journalists should be) representing 20 countries ourselves, was riveted when Gabby looked at the Israeli, then the Palestinian, the White South African, then the Black South African, the Indian Muslim Kashmiri separatist, and the Hindu nationalist, the Germans and the Jews among us, and said: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” It’s not a new quote. I have heard it since. But never with that conviction that made us all really look soberly at one another and understand our responsibility. We may have opinions, but as journalists it is our duty to be objective, to understand the passion of each side of the story. One day before our highly-anticipated election day, I present to you excerpts of a manual for reporters covering an election from the Reuters Foundation from Fleet Street in London.

 

The representation of various ideologies, commentaries and points of view is the bread and butter of publications. But news coverage is altogether a different thing. Looking at the Reuters manual for journalists covering an election, I can almost hear Gaby saying the opening lines. He may still be alive, appearing as he does an indestructible force in journalism saying this to a new batch of students): “Elections are the cornerstone of any democracy, and the media has a vital role—in informing the public about what the politicians are promising, in telling the politicians what ordinary people want, or do not want, and in ensuring that the polls are “free and fair.” Since the 2010 election was announced, we have seen so many sound bites in journalism and campaign advertising, on TV, radio and print. Journalists know that any quote given without context can change everything. Words, videos, audio can be cut and pasted to create any impression, positive or negative.

 

There is a huge power to influence in that. But we journalists are not about propaganda, or campaigns. Our only agenda is to be the voice of the people. It’s a reminder that we, the watchdogs of democracy, also need watchdogs to deepen and maintain the democratic process. That power comes with a weighty responsibility. I have lifted some points from Reuters which should be in every journalist’s handbook for election coverage.

 

1. Good journalists should report elections in a non-partisan way, suppressing their own political views in order to allow the public to make up their minds solely on the basis of what the various candidates are offering.

2. As soon as an election is announced and campaigning begins, newspapers should carry essential information on how many candidates are involved, how many parties, the number of eligible voters, the total number of constituencies.

3. The body charged with organising the elections must be independent of the government, made up of experienced, respected neutral individuals, with an independent budget guaranteed by the government.

4. In the 2000 Yugoslav presidential elections, won by Slobodan Milosevic and branded a sham by the OSCE, who were refused permission to observe, the entire process was run by his government.

5. Journalists covering elections should know the electoral law by heart. If something is not right, it is up to them to call for a boycott or postponement.

6. Observers should be able to scrutinise and verify voters’ rolls in advance. If registration is rushed and rolls are displayed after the official deadline, editors should be calling for a postponement of the vote.

7. Electoral boundaries. All votes should carry approximately the same weight, so the number of voters in each electoral district should not vary by more than 10.

8. Check that boundaries have not been altered by the ruling authorities, without proper consultation, for political advantage.

 

Everyone in our class in London, decades back before the Berlin Wall fell, and before apartheid ended, felt they were freedom fighters and then everyone else was a terrorist. We saw how vital it was always to bring both sides of the story. In the many elections we’ve had since 1962, journalists should be proud to say that the elections have been mostly free and fair, without violence, and we’ve helped keep it that way.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur