What are the media preconditions for an election to qualify as being "free and fair"?
Discussion document compiled for SA National Editors Forum (SANEF)

24 February 2002
     By Guy Berger (with research support from Andrew Kanyegirire)

Executive summary:

Would South Africa's first democratic election in 1994 have been "free and fair" if the SABC had have remained under Government control, or if the print media had still be constrained by Emergency regulations? What if only one of these had been changed, and the other was still in place? Would that make a difference? What about the recent elections in Zambia, where public media (Print and Broadcast) was so clearly pro-Government?

How important media is as a factor in whether an election is indeed "Free and Fair" is a more complex matter than meets the eye. It is, however, a critical judgement call that deserves some considered discussion. This document is intended to help meet this need.

The argument that follows below states that media components of a "free and fair" election can be broken down into six elements.

These are: a legal dispensation that enables media freedom, de facto media freedom on the ground, independent media regulation, general pluralism of media voices, active journalistic professional bodies, and an audience that enjoys access to the media and freedom of expression, as well as displaying some respect towards the democratic role of media.

These conditions impact in different ways on an election - some of them are more relevant to the "free" dimension, and others pertain to what constitutes "fair".

An election might meet all these six media conditions, but still be unfair in other aspects (eg. funding of political parties, bribery or violence against voters, vote-rigging, etc.). In other words, the six media components should be seen as necessary, although not sufficient, conditions for an election to be declared "free and fair".

By the same token, however, it is hard to imagine how an election can pass the "free and fair" test if it fails fundamentally to meet these media conditions. This is not to say all the conditions have to be perfectly met. An election might perhaps still be certified as substantively "free and fair" without all six components being present, or being present in a fully-fledged manner. However, it is important to monitor the extent to which the situation of the six, taken as a whole, impact upon the democratic event which is an election.


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