The municipal elections in Mozambique are over four months away but short-staffed newsrooms are already preparing to deal with the persistent conundrum: how do they accurately cover the elections with over 2,500 polling stations to monitor across the country? A new tool called Citizen Desk allows newsrooms to incorporate citizen reports into their news stream, to act as eyes and ears for the upcoming elections.
Citizen Desk’s beta version is currently under development by Sourcefabric, a Maputo-based nonprofit software developer. It will be tested on the popular print and online newspaper @Verdade, a partner of Global Voices and, as it claims, one of the most highly read newspapers in Mozambique. But with a circulation of 400,000, @Verdade only has an 11-person team. With Citizen Desk, however, papers like @Verdade can aggregate and verify real time reports from SMS, Facebook, Twitter and other sources. It can also publish these stories as a live blog and reward citizen journalists for excellent reporting, such as being highlighted as a trusted source.
To till the soil for the elections, @Verdade must first engage communities and encourage citizens to report come November. Last month, the @Verdade team began the process, reaching out not only to citizens but also civic organizations, radio stations and election monitors. They are training these potential citizen journalists to look out for voter intimidation, closed polling stations and malfunctioning equipment. Adam Thomas of Sourcefabric writes that they are “literally road-testing the human element of the network.”
The tool comes at a critical time. Voter turnout during the last national election in 2009 dropped significantly from previous elections. According to the Mozambican Political Process Bulletin, 3.5 million voted in 2009 out of an estimated 7.7 million eligible voters. The 2008 local elections fared even worse with only 15 percent of voters turning up at polls. In the 1994 and 1999 general elections, voter figures were 5.4 million and 4.9 million, respectively.
@Verdade’s Editor in Chief Adérito Caldeira believes that this new tool will allow for the freedom and transparency in elections and in turn, encourage greater voter turnout and political participation. “Until now, from the point of view of foreign observers, the elections have been free and transparent, but at the end of the day we know they are not. One of the causes of people not going to vote is feeling the elections are not free and transparent,” he told Sourcefabric.
After decades of civil war after its 1975 independence from Portugal, Mozambique finally had its first “free” general election in 1994. It has had four since and the next one will be some time in 2014. While international election monitors report that the voting has been so far well managed, they have also criticized Mozambique’s stringent voter restrictions. Further, in the last presidential election in 2009, there were claims of ballet box stuffing. The losing party, Renamo, accused electoral commission officers of providing the winning party, Frelimo, with extra ballot papers, allowing them to stuff ballot boxes.
The creators of Citizen Desk hope that the new tool will be able to resolve such disputes with so many eyes on the ground reporting in real time and with widespread adoption by other news organizations.
Until then, Citizen Desk still needs to be refined and to come out of beta. Those @Verdade also need to build a community of citizen reporters and check that there will be a healthy wireless network in November.
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