Case study

DFID Research: Does the media help or harm in potentially divisive elections?

The role of the media in elections is becoming an important governance issue.

The Kenyan elections as depicted in the soap opera Makutano Junction
The Kenyan elections as depicted in the soap opera Makutano Junction

The media were accused in last year’s Kenyan general election of fermenting violence, yet in Ghana they were hailed for helping facilitate an election where informed citizens cast their votes according to policy choices rather than ethnic identity.

The role of the media in elections - sometimes negative, sometimes positive - is becoming an increasingly key governance issue.

Paul Collier argues in his recent book, Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, that as elections increasingly become a catalyst for conflict, so investment needs to be made in institutions - including the media - that can inform citizens more effectively and can create more effective checks and balances in society. After the recent Bangladeshi elections, the public debate that led up to the election led one commentator in the country to argue that “We have entered a new political era in which divisive, wedge issues and identity politics take a back-seat, and the voters make their decisions based on the parties’ respective visions and policy proposals and on their assessment of the candidates’ honesty, competence, and ability to deliver”.

Interpreting what the media’s role might be in any particular election has become the aim of the BBC World Service Trust’s new advisory and response unit for DFID’s governance and conflict advisers. Where it has analysis on the role of media relevant to elections in a specific country - either from its own research or from other organisations - it has provided this as a briefing to advisers. The facility, which has been provided by the DFID-funded Policy and Research Programme on the Role of Media in Development has already been used to develop briefings for Angola, Burma, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Malawi, Yemen and Zimbabwe.

Research from the programme has also been used more widely: The Kenya research was published as a BBC World Service Trust Policy Briefing in April 2008 and formed the basis of policy briefings for donors, in Kenya and internationally. Versions were published in BBC World Agenda magazine, the International Journal of Press and Politics and in media reports. The briefing was strongly welcomed by both bilateral and multilateral agencies, and has been highlighted in many policy fora including at the Salzburg Seminar, the Ditchley Park Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy and elsewhere.

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Published 9 April 2009