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The ballot vote as embedded ritual: a radical critique of liberal-democratic approaches to media and elections in Africa

Willems, Wendy (2012) The ballot vote as embedded ritual: a radical critique of liberal-democratic approaches to media and elections in Africa. African Studies, 71 (1). pp. 91-107. ISSN 0002-0184

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Identification Number: 10.1080/00020184.2012.668295


A significant part of scholarship on media in Africa has adopted the normative ideal of liberal democracy, which defines democracy primarily as electoral democracy. Media institutions, in this regard, are considered to play an important role in strengthening the democratic process and making government more accountable to its citizens. Media are seen as constituting a discursive space or Habermasian public sphere where issues of public concern can be deliberated. Audiences are treated as citizens engaged in public dialogue in and through the media. In this approach, a major task of modern mass media is to offer information in order to enable citizens to participate meaningfully in political life such as providing fair and ‘objective’ coverage on all major candidates in elections that would allow citizens to make a well-informed choice. This article critiques the tendency in work on media in Africa to equate democracy with a form of electoral democracy. First of all, the article advocates a more substantive definition of democracy which goes beyond merely the regular conduct of free and fair elections, a multi-party system, respect for human rights and press freedom. Adopting radical democracy as a normative ideal reveals the crucial role of media – beyond merely elections – in democratising power relations and correcting structural inequalities. Secondly, the article argues that liberal-democratic approaches to media and elections presuppose a universal meaning of elections, hereby ignoring the particular embedded meaning that elections obtain in the African context. Instead of treating media as the neutral arbiters of information on election candidates, I offer an alternative, critical research agenda that considers the engagement between media institutions and political actors as a symbiotic relationship that ultimately seeks to legitimise certain election candidates and condone election rituals as democratic events par excellence.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2012 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd on behalf of the University of Witwatersrand
Divisions: Media and Communications
Subjects: J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
Sets: Departments > Media and Communications
Date Deposited: 19 Mar 2013 14:50
Last Modified: 20 Oct 2020 03:37

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