Three weeks ago as I listened to two women politicians in Tanzania lament how journalists have abandoned them to cover their male counterparts who were offering handsome allowances; I knew we have a lot of work to do.
Their tribulations were happening at time when Tanzania prepares to vote into parliament and civic wards their preferred candidates at the end of this month (30 October 2010).
It is also happening at a time when the role of the media in propelling some of the candidates into power is becoming very critical.
In September, Synovate, a research company which is monitoring the coverage of the Tanzanian elections on a weekly basis, had raised a red flag in one of its reports when it warned that women candidates were missing out in the media.
The massive and positive coverage the male politicians were getting was placing them in a better position than the female politicians.
It further emerged that while the men were using the media effectively to sell their ideas and build their profile, their female counterparts were languishing. This was worrying because studies have consistently shown the power of the media to persuade the masses to vote in a particular way.
Yet, in Tanzania, women politicians are not going to gain from this supremacy of the media to influence voting patterns. Indeed recent studies have confirmed that women politicians are seriously under-represented in the country's media.
The Gender and Media Progress Study 2010, conducted by Gender Links, shows that only 18 percent of those interviewed on politics in Tanzania were women, while 13 percent of the women who spoke to the media were in the political occupation category.
But the question is why do media prefer covering men to women during political campaigns? There are two answers to this question.
The first one is political corruption which makes it very difficult for women to not only swing the votes in their favour, but to penetrate media and get favourable coverage.
Male politicians who are endowed with resources are able to offer irresistible incentives to media personnel to influence how they are covered - both in qualitative and quantitative terms. Many of them have, through corrupt or other means, amassed much more wealth than their female competitors, which they apply to oil their campaign machinery.
On the other hand, without such endowments, women politicians in Tanzania find it extremely difficult to get media to cover their campaign forums.
This claim is not far-fetched. When asked why media cameras and pens are focusing on male politicians and not the female ones, a male journalist retorted: "The female politicians do not look after our needs well."
The message the journalist was sending to the women politicians in a coded way was - without money, forget about media coverage. The importance of his statement is that no matter the efforts the women politicians make to sell their blue prints during election times; getting media attention will heavily depend on how much they are willing to spend on media personnel.
The second reason why women politicians are receiving scant coverage during political party and general elections is the disinterest with which gender issues are treated in the newsroom. The majority of the media in Tanzania, in particular, and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, in general, pretend to lack the understanding of what gender-sensitive reporting is all about.
While this is not true for some, it is for others. Many media personnel have no idea what gender is all about and why giving fair coverage to both women and men is important.
In addition to lacking this knowledge and ability to analyse issues from a gender perspective, there is another set of journalists who accuse women, including politicians, of being difficult sources of information. But the same media has not bothered to find out why women are so fearful of it.
The truth is that such perceptions are fallacious and injurious to women, and serve to exclude them from media coverage. It is this perception that leads media to perpetuate stereotypes about women as if women are their own worst enemies.
Responding to accusations levelled against women politicians and voters by the media, Elizabeth Mbalo, a councillor from Ukonga ward in Tanzania, said the majority of the women do not understand how media works and how to use it to their advantage.
"For me, I was able to use the media to my advantage because I was once a journalist. This has really helped me to exploit the media," she said.
But she was fast to add that: "Women are fearful of the media because they say it can destroy you. And because the society, including media, sets higher moral standards for women than men, women fear their character being dragged through the mud."
What this means is if the women have to feel confident to talk to the media, then journalists have to be considerate and cover them positively.
But how can the media achieve this? Various interventions have been proposed to make the media gender-sensitive in its practice.
Two models seem to offer some solutions to the current problem: one is the development of gender policies to guide editorial practice, and the other is to sensitise and train both reporters and editors on gender analysis and sensitive reporting.
When it comes to the latter model, some people have argued the best way to engender media is to advocate for more women journalists in the media.
This thinking presupposes that all women are gender-sensitive and therefore having a critical mass in the media is a sure way of engendering coverage. But experience has shown that being a woman is not a sufficient condition to be gender-sensitive.
It is therefore instructive to note that for us to make significant progress in engendering the media, male journalists have to be gender-sensitive as well. And it is for one simple reason: the media is controlled and run by men.
What is encouraging is these models are currently being pursued by organisations such as Gender Links, and they are promising to change how media reports gender issues. For now, sadly, Tanzanian women politicians have to be content with a media that has an appetite only for the highest bidder.
- Arthur Okwemba is a Kenyan journalist with the African Woman and Child Feature Service. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news. It is republished her with the permission of Gender Links (www.genderlinks.org.za).