In 2012, the Government of Sierra Leone invited an observer mission from the European Union to monitor and observe the 17 November 2012 general elections. Over 100 observers were deployed to the 14 Districts of Sierra Leone from EU member states and Norway. Part of what that EU mission did was to monitor media coverage of the campaign, candidates and elections. Some media outlets did well, according to the EU independent observers. But, there were some fundamental flaws in the way media covered the elections as well.
Out of the nine private media monitored by the EU EOM, four media outlets showed significant unbalances in allocation of time/space and tone in favour of APC, and one in favour of SLPP.
Clearly, the independent EU observers identified issues of concern regarding how the Sierra Leone media cover elections, campaigns and candidates. One strategy that SLAJ and the media are using to help address these and other concerns is to further train and monitor the media.
The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) began a series of training workshops, funded by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI), for 25 SLAJ members and journalists from around the country on 26 November and continued the training with another group of 25 journalists on 4 December 2017. Each of the training workshops lasted for three-days and featured seasoned media educators Francis Sowa and Stephen Douglas along with special guests from the National Electoral Commission (NEC) and the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC). The final guest was Umaru Fofana of the BBC who spoke about staying safe in potentially hostile settings.
The training sessions opened with a review of the media landscape and included the EU observer mission notes. Participants then rated the current media situation based on the following criteria: balance, fairness, accuracy, technology and integrity, among others. Unfortunately, according to participant feedback, the media did not score very well receiving an average mark of less than 30%. Participants consensually agreed the media need to do a better job of reporting on political issues and elections.
The role of the media in elections coverage and democracy was explored and again it was agreed, “The media plays a very important role in a democracy. It is up to journalists, as well as voters, to find out what different parties stand for and to inform citizens about their policies and all the big issues,” summarized one participant.
Another participant added, “The aim of any election coverage is to ensure that the electorate is able to make an informed choice. Voters are entitled to accurate, fair, impartial and balanced information about the election procedures and the positions of political parties/independents and/or candidates on issues.” It was clear that many journalists understand the importance of their work.
Stephen Douglas led a session on conflict-sensitive reporting and how to avoid reporting techniques that may enflame vs calm a potentially volatile situation. Defamatory and malicious reporting was discussed at length. The issue of hate speech was reviewed and specific examples were cited. Hate speech is a horrible abuse of someone’s tribe, nationality or sex and could lead to all kinds of problems. A reporter’s choice of words was carefully examined and a series of headlines were discussed. “Political battleground” was used as an example of a headline that could potentially cause problems. Politics is not a “battle” but a process of selecting an ideology and commitment to development between political parties. By referring to politics as a battle, it can conjure images (and memories) of conflict or war.
As evidenced in a presentation by Francis Sowa, there are many ways to cover politics and politicians. Sowa led a discussion on “designing an election plan and programs”. Preparations and planning were highlighted as key to a media outlet’s coverage.
An interesting debate emerged during a presentation on “the role of women in politics and how to cover women candidates”. Generally, the media fall short of their own accountability role, which is to work and report in the interest of the public, when women are not given equal access to voice their opinions and views as sources and when women politicians and candidates are rendered invisible or only covered in stereotypical ways. The notion of “gender-aware reporting” was presented and a commitment was made to fully cover women’s issues and women’s voices.
SLAJ hosted three special guest speakers during the three days of training. Lucien Momoh of the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC) presented information on the political parties and their constitutions. He noted, “As a regulatory body, the PPRC tries to ensure political parties follow the rules as laid out in the national Constitution.” Participants were enthralled as Momoh described the requirements for party registration and the financial reporting demands of the PPRC.
The legal framework for elections and voting were explained by Albert Massaquoi of the National Electoral Commission (NEC). The process of conducting elections falls on the shoulders of the NEC and Massaquoi was very thorough in his explanation of how elections should be conducted to ensure a fair and credible process.
Elections and campaigns can be volatile and sometimes violent. Umaru Fofana, of the BBC, presented techniques to avoid harm and stay safe while reporting in potentially hostile situations. Fofana spoke about threats to journalists and listed; political party militants or extremists, security forces and criminals, who may want to take advantage of crowds or rallies. He also reviewed things a journalist could or should do to avoid harm and stay safe such as never wearing party colours, remaining behind security forces and always being aware of your surroundings. Fofana’s experiences and detailed story-telling techniques added a great deal to his presentation and generated an abundance of discussion.
The media has three roles to play during an election campaign, on voting day and throughout the political cycle. First, the media informs people about the election. The media reports fairly on the campaigns of all the political parties so the people can make their own choices. It also presents educational information to tell citizens who the candidates are and where to vote, and how to cast a vote in secret, etc. And, the media may carry advertisements from the political parties seeking the people’s support.
Secondly the media is the watchdog over the fairness of the election campaign and the voting. It is the media’s job to report if there is no free speech because some candidates are afraid to speak, or if there is corruption in election and voting procedures, or if the election management bodies are doing their jobs fairly.
And thirdly the media should be the voice of the voters. The election is not just for the politicians. An election is also an opportunity for ordinary people to speak up, to say what issues they think are important and why. The media should go out into the community and be the voice of the ordinary voters, and also be the voice for those who cannot speak up or have been ignored in the past.
The participants at the SLAJ training agreed, a professional work of journalism must be accurate, verified, balanced, neutral, gender-aware and respectful of human dignity. Implicit in these requirements is a sense of morality and of responsibility. Above all, a journalist’s primary responsibility is to his fellow citizens.