Today is World Press Freedom Day. Locally, the commemoration is themed Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation.
This day reminds all people, not just journalists, of the importance of journalism in fostering genuine democratic development.
The day suits all governments and people who believe in an open society where unfettered access to information is not only a human right but also part of human development.
The theme offers an opportunity to reflect deeply on the role journalism plays to strengthen democratic processes as the country gears up for the May 21 Tripartite Elections.
Journalism enhances the enjoyment of civil liberties, constitutional freedoms and political rights, including free assembly, right to hold opinion and voting. It creates the platform for the exchange of ideas between citizens and leaders, demystifying rumours, disinformation and ‘fake news’ during elections.
Fair and accurate journalism is critical for unbiased information for citizens to make informed decisions.
Ahead of the crunch elections, journalists have an important role to provide equal opportunity and space to political players and citizens to actively participate in all electoral processes.
Elections are key to democratic governance. The Constitution says all authority is exercised on trust by the people of Malawi and must be sustained through periodic elections. However, voter apathy remains a stumbling block to effective participatory democracy.
Statistics show that voter turnout in the country rose from 69 percent in June 1993 Referendum to 93 percent in June 1999, but dropped to 59 percent in May 2004. Only 71 percent of registered voters polled in 2014.
The fluctuations and downward trail in voter turnout is a worrying scenario to democratic governance, legitimate and credible electoral results.
We need to fight root causes of voter apathy, including ‘fake news’ or disinformation which dissuades or scares away potential voters.
The role of responsive journalism in all this cannot be overstated.
Although democracy is a popular governance system because it recognises individual rights and popular will, it has intrinsic weaknesses.
First, it has the potential to nurture ‘fake news’ and disinformation through its open support for individual civil liberties like free expression.
Second, there is equally no guarantee that the elected leaders will perform beyond the de jure ritual of periodic elections.
Third, there is a danger to be led by unsophisticated leaders only catapulted into leadership positions by an unenlightened mob or majority rule.
Fourth, in electoral campaign periods, chances are high for voters to be carried away by populist demagogues who are mostly mediocre, naïve and devoid of leadership acumen, but possess the popular appeal.
As ambassadors of truth, journalists should ensure citizens get correct information to vote for enlightened leaders with quality education and clear direction.
A nation without a clear development direction, cannot expect to achieve the desired agenda in the absence of sound leadership.
Our country needs the right leadership to end abject poverty, 53 years after attaining self-rule.
Democracy should not only end at voting people into leadership positions or simply to fulfil the constitutional requirement which allow anyone aged at least 21 to vie for political leadership.
Instead, we should go beyond just voting by identifying political leaders with high education qualifications and proven experience of successful political leadership and other attributes.
The media should stand up for democracy, realising the
fact that journalism oils the wheels of any functioning democracy necessary for
legitimate and credible electoral outcomes.