Though a date for this year’s elections has not yet been announced, the media are already on the campaign trail, writes Kenichi Serino for jocoza.

Already, the SABC has had to defend itself against claims of bias, with suspicions in the ANC that its editorial team supports the fledgling Congress of the People (Cope). 

But SABC head of news Snuki Zikalala said: "As the public broadcaster, we have the responsibility to treat all political parties in an equitable manner and we will try to remain impartial and objective."

The SABC has estimated that about 86% of South Africans will rely on it for election news.
To pre-empt the accusations of bias, the SABC is to hire an external monitoring company as well as appointing an internal "complaints officer." Zolile Majova, managing editor of TV news, has been appointed to the post. He has been with the SABC since 1984.

"I look forward to helping make the election coverage fall strictly in line with ICASA rules and SABC editorial policy, making certain that political parties get equitable and fair treatment," said Majova in a statement.  He said that he would act as a intermediary between political parties and individual programmes and would try to handle all complaints within 72 hours.

The SABC has already begun a series of election debates, broadcast live from the University of Johannesburg. Veteran broadcaster Tim Modise is moderating the tightly formatted debates.

The Independent Group is also hiring an external monitor to watch their coverage, and promises to publish the results regularly.  In a statement, group political editor Moshoeshoe Monare said: “We commit ourselves to present differing views, fairly and in a balanced manner. It will not be easy, especially when every contestant will expect to be heard, while editorial space and other constraints dictate otherwise. “

Monare also said that his team would strive to reflect the views of ordinary people, and would give readers the chance to interact with parties.

At Primedia, news head Katy Katopodis of Eye Witness News (EWN) says that her organisation will strive to maintain its standards. EWN serves 702, Highveld and two Cape Town stations, as well as a newly launched website.

"Our policy has always been and will always be one of fairness and  balance. We believe in giving every person and now in the election  period, every party, the right of reply," she said.   Katopodis added that the introduction of Cope to the political scene will not alter the way news is gathered. 

"I don't believe that it will alter the way that we cover elections. We  will look at all the big parties contesting the election and cover them accordingly," she said, "We will deploy our Eyewitness News reporters to various provinces, particularly if an area is a so-called 'hot-spot'."

Mark van der Velden, the editor of the South African Press Association agreed, saying his organisation was "looking for stories that are interesting".

"Some staffers will be deployed to competitive provinces," he said.    Van der Velden added that preparing for the elections would probably be more a question of reprioritising resources than of getting new ones.

"I know what I should be doing.  I go to war with what I have," he said.

Van der Velden also quotes Smuts Ngonyama, at the time an ANC stalwart, as having told him in the 1999 election that the media should devote the bulk of its coverage to the ANC because that party had the most presence.

Van der Velden said he disagreed then and does so today.
Ngonyama might disagree as well: as of November, he had left the ANC and joined Cope.