For the press, elections are a test of accountability

How people vote in elections and referendums often depends on what they hear on the radio, see on television or read in the newspaper and on news sites. On the African continent, journalists have their work cut out for them in 2018 because the following countries are scheduled to hold elections between July and the end of the year:

  • Mali (presidential election July 29).
  • Zimbabwe (presidential and parliamentary elections in July or August).
  • Libya (parliamentary elections in September).
  • Cameroon (presidential election in October).
  • Madagascar (presidential and parliamentary elections November 26).
  • Mauritania (National Assembly elections in November or December).
  • Democratic Republic of Congo (presidential and legislative elections December 23).

Veteran journalist Kevin Z. Smith says that when voters are heading to the polls, the job of journalists is “educating the citizenry … with information so they can make appropriate decisions.” With the pressures reporters face from censorship, bribes and threats against their lives, that job isn’t always easy.

Smith, after 25 years in professional journalism, is now the director of the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at Ohio State University. He has coached independent journalists in Uganda and Sierra Leone.

Pinky finger after being dipped into purple ink well (© Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)
A voter dips his finger in ink after casting a vote at a polling station in Freetown, Sierra Leone, during the 2018 run-off presidential election. (© Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

Smith has voiced alarm at the fact that many news media outlets are now controlled by government, corporate or private interest groups that pay reporters to amplify their views to voters without disclosing their financial connections.

In a democracy, the press should “serve as a watchdog on the government and inform the citizens so they can make the appropriate decisions about their government and their way of life,” he said.

Addressing journalists, he said that “if you chase any other interest, if that is not your motive, and your motive is to see that certain people get elected and to report in a way that is not going to be accurate and is not going to be fair, then you’re not serving your function as a journalist.”

If there is “a time in which the press needs to step up and be accountable and do the right thing by being accurate and being fair, it’s absolutely, positively during an election process,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re cheating the citizens of information. You’re cheating them out of opportunities to make decisions that affect them.”

A version of this article was previously published on April 29, 2016.