The creation of an internet public sphere by the Independent Electoral Commission
A prerequisite for a healthy, sustainable democracy is an informed citizenry that partakes in the democratic process. This line of thought can be drawn back to the work of Habermas (Habermas, 1989:49). Accordingly, such active engagement necessitates communication to transpire between a citizenry and its chosen representatives as to sustain the democratic process. This also suggests that citizens should be able to participate in the communication process. Consequently, in recent years much discourse on the media and democracy correlation has focused on the potential role that the internet could play in the furtherance of democratic values. Optimistically, a virtual political public forum in which matters of general political concern are discussed could enhance political participation and the consolidation of political rights. The Habermasian public-sphere model incorporates three key elements, which could be applied in this context persons should have universal access to the sphere, the freedom to express diverse opinions, the freedom to receive diverse opinions and information, in addition to the freedom of participating in the public sphere without interference from state or mercantile imperatives (cf.Habermas, 1989). A qualitative content analysis of the web site of Elections Canada showed that the supposedly non-operational public-sphere model could be recovered within a new media context such as the internet despite the fact that the inherent interactive nature of the internet was not fully exploited by Elections Canada. Against this background, the assumption was made that the public-sphere's concepts could also be applied in the context of a developing democracy and accordingly that the sustainability of the democratic system could be further consolidated. The Electoral Commission (IEC) was chosen as a case study, since it is constitutionally mandated to establish a democratic South African society. The creation of an internet public sphere could therefore be one of the ways in which the IEC could contribute to this consolidation process. Through extensive content analysis, it was established that the organisational web site of the IEC was mainly expended as an information dissemination and organisational image-profiling tool. As a result the web site was did not focus on participatory communication. Universal access to the web site was also rather restricted, resulting in limited web site participation to voters from specific socio-economic, cultural, and language backgrounds. It was discovered, nevertheless, that some of the contents available on the web site could at least facilitate 'offline" participatory democracy and public opinion formation. Therefore, although the web site did not implement all of the normative prescriptions of the public-sphere ideal, voters were able to retrieve valuable electoral information that would assist them in capably participating in electoral democracy.
- ETD@PUK