By Dr Parkie Mbozi
ON 14TH MAY 2021 Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Zambia Justice, Esau E. Chulu announced commencement of the campaigns for the 2021 tripartite elections, to be held on 12th August 2021. On the same media occasion Chulu announced restrictions to political rallies and other gatherings in the pretext of avoiding turning these activities into sole-called super-spreaders of COVID 19.
The media reported that Chulu had, “advised political parties to desist from holding rallies or gathering crowds” and that “it was important to do away with rallies due to the current threat of the third wave of COVID-19.” Later during the launch of his party’s (PF) campaign President Edgar Lungu reinforced the ban of rallies. He said, “therefore, in my capacity as Head of State and the government, I hereby direct the police service and the ministry of health to ensure enforcement of the COVID-19 pandemic health regulations and guidelines without fear or favour,”
On 3rd June the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) rubber stamped Lungu’s ban. At a media briefing in Lusaka on 3rd June ECZ Chief Electoral Officer Patrick Nshindano said said “the suspension might be lifted after reviewing the situation.
So, though two weeks ago I wrote on this platform that the ban was “hypocrisy of the worst order” on the part of PF and ECZ, and it is, the deed is done. That’s now law. Meanwhile elections will go on as planned. Our legal minds have made it clear that the law does not provide for cancellation or postponement of elections. Constitutional lawyer John Sangwa (my good friend) said, “The date of elections is enshrined in the Constitution and there is no provision to derogate or change that.”
Examples abounds where elections have taken place even in the worse COVID 19 situations. In an article titled published in May 2020, two months after the advent of COVID 19 in Zambia, I wrote that, “South Korea, for instance, held its 21st legislative elections on 15 April 2020 amidst having the second highest cases of COVID 19 after China at the time (at least 10,560 cumulative cases and 200 deaths).
All the 300 constituencies held their elections; they are twice as many as Zambia’s constituencies.
I further reported that, “the Korean election attracted the highest voter turnout in 28 years (at 66.2% of the 44 million registered voters)” and about the various measures put in place to curb COVID 19 spread. “At the door, voters were handed masks and gloves and a polling station officer took their temperature. Anyone with a temperature of more than 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 degrees Farenheit) was required to vote in a special booth. Election officials in masks escorted those who failed the temperature check or who were not wearing a mask to separate polling booths, sanitising the facilities after they had voted.” I added that “All the polling 14,500+ polling booths were regularly disinfected. A special arrangement was made for the 13,000 people under self-quarantine to cast their ballots immediately after the polls closed.”
The article further adds that: “Lessons can also be learnt about how campaigns were conducted. While election campaigns in the country are often festive, featuring K-pop style dance troupes, this election season was more sedate. Candidates wore gloves and face masks as they campaigned on the streets of Seoul.” Most of the campaigns were virtual, meaning “using computers or the internet instead of going to a place, meeting people in person, etc- “
Back to our scenario, rallies are just one form of communication medium. Now that they are banned, the question is, what means are at the disposal of the parties? My answer is the media are now are major substitute for rallies. In this article I argue that the battle will be won and lost in the media. The parties with the best skills and creativity will have an edge over the others. Likewise, those that ‘hit the bull’ on choice of most ‘effective medium or combination of media stand a better chance to buy over voters, notwithstanding confounding factors, such as the salability of their messages and candidates.
The cluster of media available for our political parties are: interpersonal or human communication; mass media; community-based media, and digital media. Mass media are defined as to “a diverse array of media technologies that reach a large audience via mass communication.” They include: television, radio, the Internet, magazines, billboards, posters and newspapers, etc. Interpersonal or human communication is defined as “exchange of information between two or more people.” It can also be extended to include “small intimate groups such as the family”. Interpersonal communication can take place in face-to-face settings, as well as through platforms such as social media. Campaign rallies fall under the category.
Community media are “any form of media that function in service of or by a community. … In other words, it is having access to or creating local alternatives to mainstream broadcasting, like local community newspapers, radio stations, or magazines.” Digital media means any media that are encoded in machine-readable formats. Together, digital media refers to any information that is broadcast to us through a screen. This includes text, audio, video, and graphics that is transmitted over the internet, for viewing on the internet. Examples include: Audio; Video; Photos and illustrations; Text, Types of Content, eBooks; Blogs and articles and Social media and social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Linked-Inn, etc).
The choice of which media type depends on a number of factors, and this is where the party with the most astute media experts is ahead of the pact. The factor is understanding how human beings receive and encode or process information before they react to the messages they receive. A key consideration is the understanding of what type of media achieves the best results at different stages in the human behaviour change process (from s socio-psychological perspective.
The stages are in the following order: creating awareness; impart knowledge; change perceptions and attitudes; and, finally change behaviours (in this case VOTE for a particular candidate). In other words, individuals first hear or see something, learn or know about it, form an opinion and then attitude about it, then, finally, accept it and act on it. Sorry folks, there are no shortcuts.
From years of research, we now know that interpersonal and community communication strategies are more effective for complex stages of the behaviour change process (notably change perceptions and attitude and actual behaviour. The reason for that is that they allow for the IDEAL communication to occur: it includes ability for two-way cyclic communication (back-and-forth) and for transaction and exchange of words until the parties reach an agreement. Hence strategies such as door-to-door, ‘cell’ meetings, small group meetings, etc may just be the blessing in disguise that may just turn out to be the game changer. The downside is that such strategies are extremely expensive and labour intensive. I have no doubt the political parties are feeling the pinch.
On the other hand, the mass media or mass communication, are largely effective for less complex stages or information, such as creating awareness and understanding. In the context of political campaigns, mass media may turn out to be only more effective in creating awareness about a particular party and/or its candidates but less effective in convincing people to vote for them. The weakness with the mass media is that of lack IDEAL communication: direct engagement, exchange/transaction, intimacy and other canons of mutuality. It is what I call To Whom It May Concern communication, which in some instances they become “seed (that) fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it (Mathew 13: 1 – 23).
The main strength of the mass media lies in its ability to reach large numbers of people with a single communication effort. In other words, it is more cost-effective. Comparing the use of extension staff to mass media in agriculture, Emily McAnany (1980) for instance writes that, “ In most Third World [countries], these agents are in [such] short supply that they can reach only a fraction of the farmers, yet there may be other ways such as the mass media of diffusing the same information to a much larger portion of the target population”. That summarises the conundrum facing the political parties in this campaign, especially those without solid structures on the ‘ground.’
In the nutshell, the parties have to make the following considerations in their choice of media to use:
- Reach: number of people the communication effort wants to target. Quick reach of a wide audience can be attained through use of mass media where the audience has media access;
- Frequency: the number of times the message or content is to be aired or publicized. Some messages require many exposures and may thus place limitations on use of certain media owing to cost;
- Proven Impact: what is documented as the success rate – on many accounts – of a particular medium or combination of media or channels; and,
- Cost effectiveness: the net benefit compared to the cost of using a particular medium or a combination of media or channels.
- Existing materials: that can be replicated and/or scaled up
Ultimately a multi-channel campaign, combining mass media, community events, interpersonal communication (IPC) and digital media, enhances both reach and frequency at the same time. New media, for instance social media platforms, help to make up for the weaknesses of the mass media and interpersonal communication forms.
So good luck parties, what you are doing with media in this campaign will be useful evidence for the research community when this election is over.