We need a shared vision: Silaigwana

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) recently held a 2018 harmonised elections media review workshop in Nyanga, with representatives from the media; local and international, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), and other stakeholders. Here, The Herald Senior Writer Elliot Ziwira (EZ) chats with ZEC Chief Elections Officer Utloile Silaigwana (US) on the workshop and other electoral issues.

EZ: In your capacity as Acting Chief Elections Officer for ZEC, tell us about the workshop you recently had with the media in Nyanga.
 The workshop was one of a series of post-election review workshops that ZEC has embarked on. We have already held our internal post-election review workshops beginning with our district. Then we came to the provinces, then we have done our national, where we had all the district and provincial election officers to review the conduct of the 2018 harmonised elections.

It is a normal practice for an election management body after conducting such an election that we have to review, and when we review we are looking at what we did well and what we did not do so well.

What are the areas of improvement? But the post-election review we had in Nyanga was not limited to internal stakeholders; ZEC as a commission and its staff, but involved other external stakeholders, particularly the media. The media is one of our important stakeholders in election management.

We are going to have a series of these, not only ending with the media, but with civic society as well, whom we engaged to assist us in carrying out voter education during the 2018 general elections. I am sure we will also have another multi-stakeholder workshop, probably beginning of the year.

This is important because an election management body relies, in this case, on the participation of the media because in terms of the election, what is key is participation not only by the voters, but all citizens in their various categories, including the media, so that we can reflect on what we have done with the aim to plan for the future election. As you may be aware, elections are a form of democracy and they are going to be with us.

To us as an election management body, the most important person is the voter. So what we have done is to enable the voter, who is the primary stakeholder, to exercise his or her right to vote. Yes, there are political parties, but they cannot exist without the voter. We are embarking on these workshops in order to improve our elections and processes, and make elections better managed for the benefit of all citizens.

EZ: As ZEC have you been able to effectively assess the media’s role in informing citizens during elections?
 We have a media monitoring committee, which is activated during election periods. This committee looks at how the media reports, and it is both a statutory obligation and an instrument.

I applaud the media for being active during the election by providing necessary information to the voter. There have been so many reforms. We have come out this time with a completely new voters’ roll, which was based on the BVR system; a new phenomenon to our voters.

We have also conducted elections, which were polling station specific, and also new to ordinary voters. In that regard there was need for continuous information, not only through the voter education that ZEC has. I will also mention that in the voter education we were carrying out for citizens, we were alive to the fact that we have other players like civil society organisations. We wrote to a number of them, and I think they were close to 50 that were carrying out voter education together with us. So in that area there was a lot of information from the media and from the voter education groups.

The other aspect is that, as an election management body, we carried out voter education for the new system of registering voters, so that we come out with a completely new voters roll.

We had some negatives from some parts of the media, which were unfortunate, but we take it as a learning curve. One of the important things is that I believe the media can build or destroy a nation. And when it comes to elections, I believe the media has a responsibility to accurately inform citizens on what would be happening, so that they will be able to make choices, and understand why their votes lead to democracy, for their votes are key to the development of the country.

I applaud the media, yes, but in some instances the media used to misinform, for example, when we launched the BVR (Biometric Voter Registration) exercise, some sections of the media carried stories which were brought in by political parties and were not true. They said ZEC had no capacity to come up with a new voters’ roll, so people should not go and register. In the first week in areas like Harare and Bulawayo where there is high visibility of media practitioners and institutions, we started with very low figures registering, because the media disseminated inaccurate information that was given out by politicians to the electorate.

When it came to voting itself, the media played a very important role in giving information to the electorate. But we still find ourselves as a society trapped in misinformation by some sections of the media, which does not settle well with our country.

The media as the Fourth Estate is a powerful tool in articulating a national vision; to put it clearly that this is our vision. How do we get there? Despite political affiliations, we all claim that we want to develop our country, and if we are to develop our nation it means we have to have one vision; a shared vision. Let there be no differences in how to achieve that shared vision. That way it will enable the media to depolarise rather than polarise our society. This is my view.

EZ: So in your view, the media somehow is accountable to political parties, instead of voters?
 As it came out from the post-election media review, it would appear some journalists have become what is termed commissariat journalism. As long as you are a commissariat journalist it means you are a commissar of a certain political party. There is no longer that hunger to verify facts because you want to gallop along the lines of a certain political party. But we are saying the media must act as a catalyst to give balanced and accurate information to the voter.

EZ: How is ZEC helping the media in taking the national vision or voter education to the people?
 I am not sure whether as a country we have a shared vision. I am still to hear from a national perspective everyone saying this is our vision despite differences in political affiliation. So this shared vision is blurred if it is there at all, but if we are to assist political parties and the media so as to help the whole country move forward in a particular direction, as ZEC we would want to keep on engaging the media and exchanging views.

I believe there is a knowledge gap in terms of electoral information. Elections probably are a relatively new field and it’s a growth area, so we need to keep on engaging, sharing information and experiences.

If I am to give you experiences from other countries that I have travelled to, I may put across what I mean. If you go to countries like Rwanda, everyone knows that barely 20 years ago Rwanda was not a country to talk about because of civil war. But the people of Rwanda crafted a shared vision and everyone is rallying behind that vision. If you go to Rwanda right now, you will not find a single political party speaking ill of another political party. You will not find political players or voters speaking ill of one another. There is tolerance at a high level. So to me this is what I think we all desire. The benefit is that today Rwanda is one of the fastest developing countries in Africa, even in the world.

EZ: ZEC seems to be tainted by the past as is projected through the media. What is the electoral body doing to change that perception?
 We should learn from history. In the past, there was not a lot of engagement between ZEC and stakeholders. There was some kind of disengagement, particularly with the media, civil society and political parties. Engagement was between ZEC and ordinary voters. The ZEC of today as compared to the ZEC of yesteryear, and judging by the 2018 elections, anyone who is honest and truthful will see that there has been a shift. ZEC has literally rebranded by making sure that it engages all stakeholders extensively. ZEC also engaged faith based organisations. The voter education that ZEC embarked on before and during this election is huge.

You may have read reports from sister electoral management bodies in SADC; the Electoral Commissions Forum of SADC countries, a body that has set standards, principles and guidelines on the conduct of elections; and ZEC has made sure that it conducts elections in Zimbabwe in terms of those guidelines. Not only the SADC guidelines on the conduct of democratic elections, but also on the guidelines of the African Union and of course the best practice. So if you look at the reports, you can see that the ZEC of today is engaging, progressive, and makes sure that it takes along stakeholders as it conducts elections.

EZ: You talked about your engagement with political parties. What has it revealed, and what have you learnt?
 We have learnt quite a lot; a divergent type of learning if I may say. We have learnt that largely, political parties have accepted that ZEC conducts elections in terms of the law. The most important thing, first and foremost is that ZEC must conduct elections in terms of the law, because ZEC is a servant of the law, and this law is not crafted by ZEC, but by political parties. On the negative side, you will find that despite that the political parties, who make up legislators in Parliament, crafted the laws which are then implemented, they seem not to recognise them. It becomes worrisome.

Secondly, we have experienced through engagement with political parties that some of them wanted to usurp ZEC’s constitutional mandate. It is clear in the Constitution; in the Electoral Act that ZEC is solely responsible for registering voters, designing the ballot papers, acquiring election material, printing the ballot paper, but then you would find some political parties now questioning it, and saying they also need to be there. ZEC is an independent body; independent from Government, from political parties. We do not depend on political parties. No one has taken ZEC to court for violating the Electoral Act.

We have always gone out of our way to engage political parties on all aspects to do with elections, even in the training of officers and agents, so that they understand the conduct of polls. In my view this is critical.

EZ: Coming to the issue of continuous training, how do you see yourself as ZEC roping in media houses in the training of journalists?
 As ZEC, we look at elections as an electoral cycle. We were in the election phase of that circle, we are now in the post-election period where we are now reviewing activities in the post-election phase, re-strategising, so that we can come up with recommendations to the Legislature on what we think should be done, if any.

The pre-election phase is the longer phase, and our aim as ZEC is that during this phase, we look at issues to do with training, which is very key. Not only training of electoral officers, but also training of stakeholders, particularly the media, because we feel there is a gap in the information chain that needs to be filled in.

source: the herald

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