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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

‘PERISCOPING’ THE LIBERIAN MEDIA’S JOURNEY IN THE 2023 LEGISLATIVE & PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

Date:

On October 10, 2023, Liberia will witness its 4th postwar democratic elections, where more than two million registered voters will choose their leaders for the next six years. The voters (provisional yet) will cast their ballots at approximately 2080 voting centers to elect 90 individuals for the presidency and legislature. These newly elected leaders will join 15 sitting senators (elected in 2020), resulting in a total of 105 elected leaders for the country’s approximately 5 million people.

As the country and its people prepare for this imperative milestone, it is essential to acknowledge the significant role and responsibilities of the Liberian media in ensuring a transparent, informed, and successful electoral process. The media’s role in democratic processes worldwide is crucial, and Liberia is no exception. In fact, without the media, no democratic elections is possible.

The media serves as a vital link between candidates, parties, and the electorate. In the upcoming Liberian elections, the media will have the responsibility of providing unbiased coverage, offering a platform for political discourse, and ensuring equal representation for all candidates. By doing so, it facilitates an informed electorate, enabling voters to make decisions based on comprehensive and reliable information provided by and through the media.

This is why, in the lead-up to the 2023 General and Presidential Elections in Liberia, the media assumes multiple roles that are critical to the success of the democratic process. Beyond merely reporting on campaigns and other electoral processes, the media serves as a campaign platform, an open forum for debate and discussion, and a public educator, playing a vital role in fostering an informed and engaged electorate.

In its function as a campaign platform, political candidates and parties rely on the media to disseminate their messages to a wide audience. Through professional news coverage, interviews, and advertisements, the media offers candidates an opportunity to present their platforms and engage with the electorate. This platform is invaluable in leveling the playing field, allowing candidates from different backgrounds, regardless of their sizes and resources, to reach voters and compete based on ideas and merits.

As a platform for political debate, our media must act as an unbiased platform for political discourse, facilitating open deliberations and providing equal coverage to all candidates and parties, while creating avenues for citizens to voice their opinions and engage with political issues. Through televised debates, radio call-in shows, and online discussions (particularly on Facebook), the media facilitates the exchange of ideas, allowing voters to hear different perspectives and make informed decisions. This open forum fosters a vibrant democracy, where diverse voices are heard, and critical issues are debated in the public sphere.

‘Moreover, the media acts as a public educator, playing a crucial role in informing citizens about the electoral process, political parties, and candidates. Through investigative reporting, analysis of policy proposals, and fact-checking (which is more necessary than ever), the Liberian media empowers voters with the knowledge they need to make informed choices on October 10. By providing accurate and reliable information, the Liberian media will serve as a safeguard against misinformation and help voters navigate the complexities of the political landscape.

Professionalism and ethical standards, which seem to be slipping away in some instances, mean a lot to the media’s journey in these elections and the country’s democratic success. This calls for the media to strive to maintain professionalism and uphold ethical standards. It should verify information before dissemination, fact-check claims made by politicians (many of whom will tell deadly and devilish lies), and avoid sensationalism or biased reporting.

The absence of these journalistic virtues can detrimentally impact the democratic process by misleading citizens into making wrong decisions and regretting them later. The media should avoid being the culprit for any wrong decision the electorate makes by reporting nothing but the facts. Our media must understand that objectivity and accuracy are crucial in fostering a well-informed electorate, enabling citizens to make sound decisions based on reliable information.

Undoubtedly, it goes without saying that the Liberian media also faces prospects and challenges as it embarks on this electoral journey. One of the prospects lies in its potential to create an engaged and politically aware citizenry. Through its coverage, the media can educate voters about the importance of their participation, promote voter registration (as it recently did), and encourage peaceful and fair elections.

Moreover, it can serve as a platform for marginalized voices, amplifying the concerns of various communities and fostering inclusivity in the political process. I have been watching and following several media entities playing these roles.

For example, Okay FM’s Morning Rush talk show has given voices to Liberians from all walks of life to express their views about the electoral process and their participation. At some points, special telephone lines have been set aside for women to express their views, while the station has given exclusive airtime to women aspirants to express their political desires to the public. More of these feats are required not just for women but other marginalized groups and smaller political parties as a way of strengthening our democracy.

Nevertheless, challenges exist that must be addressed. The media in Liberia often grapples with limited resources, including financial constraints and inadequate training. These obstacles can hinder its ability to provide comprehensive coverage, conduct investigative journalism, and maintain independence. Journalists require the necessary tools and skills to navigate the complexities of election reporting effectively.

Additionally, a serious challenge is the potential influence of powerful interests on media outlets, which could compromise their impartiality and undermine the integrity of the electoral process. While there are media outlets and journalists committed to upholding high ethical standards and providing accurate and balanced reporting, there are many instances of unprofessional conduct, including biased reporting, lack of fact-checking, and sensationalism fostered by external influence.

For example, according to research, some 15 media entities in Liberia are owned by politicians, some of whom are running in these elections. These politicians will obviously, to a greater extent, control and dictate the contents of these stations that they founded and fund. They could give directives on talk show topics and censor what goes on their radio stations. Practicing true journalism on these stations, without satisfying the whims and caprices of their owners overtly or covertly, will amount to a breach of the station’s “editorial policy.”

With politicians owning and controlling media entities, we can expect, at some point in time, to see the proliferation of “political journalists” and propagandists who will twist the news, talk show topics, and discussions to favor their godfathers. Such practices can undermine public trust in the media and hinder the development of a well-informed citizenry – and even undermine democracy. It’s a challenge we must grapple with.

To overcome these challenges and harness the media’s full potential, it is imperative for the National Elections Commission (NEC), development partners, and media empowerment organizations to empower the media. Training programs focused on election reporting can enhance journalists’ skills and equip them to navigate the electoral landscape effectively. Financial support through training, investigative and business development grants for media organizations is essential to ensure sustainable and independent journalism.

Let us not be dismissive of the crucial roles that media development organizations like Internews and the Center for Peace Building and Media Studies have played now and then, but more needs to be done with more emphasis on covering campaign rallies and election day reporting. The instability or poor level of staff retention in the mainstream media accounts for why more of these refresher and specific training is required. Many of those trained in the past are no longer in the mainstream and have been replaced by younger or newer journalists, most of whom are novices in reporting, let alone covering special areas like elections.

But training and financial support aren’t the only aspects. Fostering an enabling environment that respects press freedom and protects journalists from harassment or intimidation is crucial. The media needs space to function, and being hostile to the media to the extent that its functioning is seriously undermined undermines the “democratic-ness” of the very democratic process. That is why NEC can be applauded for terminating the services of one of its contracted staff, Thomas Bryant, who physically assaulted journalist Diamond Slanger of Spoon Communications Network on March 21, 2023, during the voter registration exercises.

“The Commission condemns in the strongest terms the attack on Journalist Diamond N. Slanger… by an electoral supervisor known as Thomas Bryant… The Commission will not condone these acts of violence… and has therefore terminated the services of Mr. Bryant with immediate effect,” NEC Chair Davidetta Brown Lansanah told a press conference. This was a welcome decision that signified that the media needs freedom to work – to cover the elections and report to the public. More of this is required.

Collaboration between the media, civil society organizations, and the National Elections Commission is pivotal in the pending elections. Together, they can work towards promoting transparency, accountability, and fairness in the electoral process. By recognizing the media as a vital stakeholder, all parties involved can contribute to a successful and credible election that reflects the will of the Liberian people.

Certainly, as Liberia prepares for the October 10 elections, the media’s role takes center stage. By fulfilling their responsibilities with professionalism, adhering to ethical obligations, and receiving support from relevant authorities, the Liberian media can play a pivotal role in shaping the country’s democratic future. An empowered media not only safeguards the integrity of the electoral process but also strengthens the foundations of democracy, fostering a more inclusive and prosperous Liberia for all its citizens.

Even though the process still seems lukewarm at this time compared to the three previous post-war democratic elections, it is crystal clear that there’s no turning back. It will happen on October 10! The media must neither sleep nor flutter!

Danicius Kaihenneh Sengbeh
Danicius Kaihenneh Sengbeh
Is a journalism, media, and communication professional with over two decades of experience. He lectures Journalism at the University of Liberia. He earned an MSc in Media and Communication Studies at Lund University in Sweden, a BA in Mass Communication at the University of Liberia and Diploma in Journalism from the International School of Journalism. He’s UN Media Fellow and former Secretary General and Assistant Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia. He also manages Communications at the Liberia Revenue Authority, contributing to domestic resource mobilization for Liberia. WhatsApp +231777586531/dakasen1978@yahoo.com

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