Local govt elections 101 guide for journos

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pretoria - In its quest to deepen democracy, the Open Society of South Africa (OSF-SA) launched a guide for journalists to write in-depth, accurate and balanced stories on the day of Local Government Elections - 18 May.

The election resource for journalists titled "A touchpad to our future: local government elections manual" can also be used by civil society. It was launched by the OSF-SA and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in Johannesburg on Wednesday.

OSF-SA executive director, Zohra Dawood, said the manual aims to build capacity of journalists to effectively prepare for, monitor and report on the 2011 municipal elections, as well as educating voters on elections and democracy. 

Moreover, it highlights the importance of media in a democratic state and offers a holistic and practical approach for journalists to report on South Africa's political system. 

"Elections are essential to any democratic order. The general population participates in the democratic processes by voting for their representatives during elections. 

"It is fundamental that the environment in the build up to the elections is free and fair for all candidates to campaign while at the same time ensuring that the electorate has access to information that will enable them to make informed decisions.

"It is with this understanding that the foundation undertook the exercise of developing this manual to serve as a reference tool for journalist and civil society in general, to prepare and report on the upcoming local government elections," Dawood said. 

The manual covers all essential information about South Africa's electoral process. It will assist media to develop a methodical approach when reporting on the 2011 and future municipal elections.

In South Africa, local government elections coverage tends to focus on campaign issues, promises, debates and is usually events based.

Dawood said the manual will provide reporters with a wealth of election data and research that could be used to explore more interesting news angles. 

"This will help educate civil society and enable them to make an informed decision when voting and debating on political issues," she said. 

The role of mainstream media has shifted dramatically from a largely traditional 'uninvolved observer' to a more active 'civic journalism', especially with the emergence of the social network platforms. 

Representing the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef), Paddi Clay, said the manual will significantly help to empower and build the capacity of journalists who will be covering the local government elections to effectively undertake their roles. 

Clay said local municipalities should make available crucial information to the media in order to be disseminated to the communities. 

"It is important that journalists practice their journalistic skills while covering local government elections with professionalism. They must be more informed to write factual, interesting and well-researched stories.

"This election tool contains data that is in keeping with Sanef's mandate for a free media in our country as enshrined in our democracy," she said. 

Kate Skinner, Co-Ordinator of the Save our Public Broadcasting Coalition, said: "What we need in South Africa is citizen journalism. Reporters should focus on critical issues affecting communities at local government level. This includes water, billing problems and electricity as well as refuse collection."

Skinner further said to stimulate the electorate interests in participating in local government elections, reporters should specifically focus on in each of the issues affecting people through getting an analyst or an expert on a particular issue as well as a politician to offer possible solutions to the identified challenges.

The manual is divided into four sections aimed at print, broadcast and online media. The sections are: Introduction to the Constitution, Government and the Law, Elections and Election Law, and Democracy and Election Systems. 

Deputy IEC electoral officer, Norman du Plessis, said while the media plays a vital role in deepening democracy, reporters on the other hand should have more knowledge about the electoral processes. 

The last section focuses on media law and using the media for elections as well as practical guidelines for journalists.