BLANTYRE, MALAWI— Political reporters are learning how to focus their coverage of Malawi’s next national elections on issues of health, schools and roads that will affect voters in the rural areas of the country.
Experienced journalists conducted a series of sessions on how to have more impact in their reporting of the coming political campaigns that will select the next president and members of parliament in elections scheduled for May, 2014.
Two workshops have been run by the Institute on War and Peace Reporting and are funded by the National Democratic Institute. A third will he held in April.
“I am sharing ideas on how we can make reporting of elections look more on real issues that affect voters, more in particular rural voters,” said Ivor Gaber, a journalism trainer from the journalism department at City University in London.
Gaber wants journalists to concentrate “... on issues of health, education, transport as well as doing the normal political stuff." He wants to give them ideas, tips and exercises and "to make the coverage of elections more relevant to Malawian voters.”
Critics say report on issues
Malawi journalists have at times been accused of focusing their reporting on personalities rather than issues affecting members of the general public. Observers say the tendency reaches higher levels during an election campaign when most journalists fall prey to politicians who give out freebies to advance their political interests.
Cheu Mita is the War and Peace Reporting program manager in Malawi. “What prompted us to do this [training] is that in the past, election coverage has mainly being on people or the political horse races," she said.
“We want to change that mindset," she said. People shouldn't vote on political or regional lines. " .... we want them to vote for people who they feel will be able to bring them development.” This can only be achieved if journalists base their reporting on issues affecting the electorate rather than promoting personalities.
The language of political reporting
Rhodes Msonkho, a senior political reporter for privately owned Capital Radio, describes the workshops as an eye opener. “We have seen that in previous elections there were some [misleading] words which were used in our reporting.”
Msonkho gave examples: words like ‘so and so are winning’ are often misleading, he said. Leading means a temporary condition, but winning means you have declared that candidate a winner, he said.
“We have also learnt the specifics of preparations themselves and how to challenge those taking part. For example, the issue of a manifesto; What is it that is contained in the manifesto that people want?”
Too much bias with incumbents
Another journalist, Chikondi Juma, reports for the local daily newspaper, The Daily Times. She says from her past experience covering elections that journalists have sometimes been accused of bias toward other political parties.
She said covering the political party preparations is complex. “For example, when you have written a story that probably doesn’t speak well about them [party leaders], they think you belong to the other party or you have received some kick-backs from a rival party.”
Another challenge is intimidation from party supporters during press conferences, Juma says. “Especially governing political parties.
"During their press conferences they have supporters there. They boo you and you don’t feel safe and you don’t ask the right questions because you fear they may view it as you just wanting to embarrass their leaders.”
With the new skills, she says it will be easier to cover the forthcoming election.
Besides the new skills, all journalists agree that the stumbling block remains the absence of an access to information law. Such a bill has long been awaiting debate in parliament. If passed into law, this would give the journalists a mandate to get information from public officials.