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Why the role of the media is so important to free and fair elections in Africa

Indeed, renowned writers such as Michaela Wrong likened the Kenyan media to “a zombie army”.

She argued that it had “taken up position where Kenya’s feisty media used to be, with local reporters going glaze-eyed through the motions”.

Local journalists didn’t agree.

They argued that erring on the side of caution was a sacrifice worth making in light of the 2007-2008 post-election violence, when the news media was accused of irresponsible coverage which contributed to it.

As the news media decides which approach to adopt in the coverage of the next general election, it must recognise that its role has changed considerably in Africa and around the world.

While mainstream media remains an important space for public debate, it can no longer be regarded as an impartial arbiter due to three key changes.

First, the African media has become an active participant in the political process because quite a few outlets are now owned by politicians.

In Kenya for example, the current president owns Media Max, a company with diverse media interests including TV, radio and newspapers.

Media outlets that are owned by politicians have been known to take sides either covertly or overtly.

While this tradition is part of the political culture in the United States and Europe, such partisanship is still only grudgingly accepted in Africa.

Second, elections have become an important source of revenue for the media with wealthy candidates and political parties spending large amounts of money in political advertising.

As such, coverage is skewed in favour of those who can afford the high cost of advertising.

In Kenya for example, a staggering 8 billion shillings ($77 million) was spent on radio campaigns alone during the 2013 election cycle.

Finally, the number of news content providers has grown exponentially.

Mainstream media now has to fight for audiences like never before.

This has forced it to ignore some of the most fundamental features of journalism like the verification of stories and strong gate-keeping processes.

As political campaigns evolve in Africa, so must media coverage of elections.

However, it remains incumbent upon the press to act responsibly and in the interest of democracy.

By George Ogola. This article was first published by The Conversation

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