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Day 2 sessions highlighted the impact of social media disinformation and misinformation on voter behaviour along with the uncertainty of a COVID-19 safe elections for voters.

Nirvasha Kumar

29 Apr 2022

Dialogue Fiji (DF) held a dialogue on electoral issues from 28th- 29th April 2022 with panellists; who as experts, academics, researchers, and members of Civil Society Organisations (CSO) offered insights on the issues that significantly impacts electoral processes and its integrity. The two - day forum discussions were held at the Warwick Fiji hotel, Coral Coast, Sigatoka.

The first panel of the day took place on the theme of Social Media Disinformation and Electoral Integrity that was moderated by Mr. Abdul Shaheed from the Rainbow Pride Foundation. The discussants included Mr. Jope Tarai; a PhD candidate at The Australian National University, Dr. Mosmi Bhim; an Academic of Fiji National University, Ms. Tajeshwari Devi, the Commissioner-In-Charge at the Online Safety Commission and Dr. Shailendra Singh; the Regional Media Expert at The Australian National University.

Jope tarai presented on the online presence of legitimate organisations such as government ministries, Fiji Police and Media organisations, he also provided examples of fake profiles of media organisations like The Fiji Times that have significantly contributed to the prevalence of fake news hysteria amongst citizens.

Speaking at the event, Tajeshwari Devi, the Commissioner-In-Charge at the Online Safety Commission also outlined the procedure of dealing with complaints received by the commission and how common people dealing with issues like cyber-bullying and defamatory or hate speech can report on such issues.

The final panel was Moderated by Dr Sunil Kumar from The University of Fiji and the consortium of panellist comprised of Dr Anaseini Maisema from the Ministry of Health & Medical Services; Mr. Nilesh Lal, the Executive Director of Dialogue Fiji, Dr Ganesh Chand; an Academic and a Former Politician alongside Mr Erik Asplund, who is a Programme Officer at International IDEA.

The panel deliberated on the pandemic’s profound impact on the health and welfare of the Fijians in the past two years and how it can shape the health of our democracy in the 2022 elections.

Against that backdrop, Mr. Nilesh Lal said the end of pandemic is nowhere in sight as more infectious variants remain a high probability. He also shared that there is limited efficacy of 1st generation vaccines, and evolving vaccine escape capacity of the SARS-CoV2, which are key factors impacting the end of the pandemic.

“If there is a large scale COVID-19 outbreak during elections, the authorities could postpone it or hold it with the COVID-19 safety protocols. However, in cases of restrictions, an Imposition on public gatherings can significantly impact the ability of candidates to deliver their election messages, meet people and build popular support,” Lal said.

“Also, an election campaign conducted through media can seriously disadvantage parties or candidates hindering them the print space or air time for several reasons. An election campaign conducted predominantly through social media may lead to a crisis of disinformation. Also, given issues of distrust in election processes in Fiji, postal ballots will have less acceptance, in the event that a very high number of voters vote through postal ballot.”

Lal said that proper safety measures should be taken to prevent a massive outbreak of the virus during voting like mandatory mask wearing, physical distancing, public gathering should be done as per the COVID-19 safety measures. The proper ventilation of the polling venues should be ensured, with Postal voting being encouraged for those at higher risk of serious outcomes from COVID-19 infection. Also, the Writ of elections to be only issued after a careful analysis of emerging COVID-19 outbreaks globally and future scenario predictions.

Echoing these points, panelist Mr Erik Asplund, who is a Programme Officer at International IDEA shared research findings that showed the countries that have either held or postponed election amidst the pandemic and emerging variants. He said that the cost of election is imperative to consider when scheduling an election during an outbreak.

“Health, safety measures and associated costs would depend on the country and elections contexts but without sufficient interventions to reassure voters turn out could be hit especially amongst those who have underlying health conditions. That is why the elections that have taken place in the pandemic have been expensive than the past elections. Election commissions have budgeted for personal protected equipments for poling officials and sometimes for voters as well,” said Esplund.

This event formed part of the DF led project “Building Public Confidence in Elections in Fiji through Civil Society Action” project that is funded by UKAID and is being jointly implemented with International IDEA.
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