SLAJ President calls for media empowerment for effective elections reporting

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President Nasralla making his statement at the ECSL hall

By Alhaji Haruna Sani

President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, has during the launch of a project titled: “Ensuring Locally-Led Elections are Credible and Transparent (ELECT) in Sierra Leone” called for media empowerment for effective election reporting.

President Nasralla noted that in today’s world, media plays a huge role in elections as it is the primary source of information for voters and can shape public opinion.

“Media can influence the outcome of an election by providing information about the candidates and their policies, as well as by providing a platform for candidates to express their views,” he established, maintaining that the media can also set the agenda for the elections by ensuring that the politicians discuss issues that are close to the heart of the electorates.

The SLAJ President argued that, however, the media can also be used to spread hate and false information and manipulate public opinion to the wrong end.

He pointed out that the media has always been a partner but somehow efforts by media practitioners have largely gone unnoticed, in the sense that most people and organizations/institutions as well, only see the media as a tool for information dissemination.

“But we believe that the media is a partner and key player in elections and beyond,” he underscored, stressing that it cannot be an afterthought.

He said looking at the media currently, support seems to be coming closer to the elections but issues around covering elections need to be sustainable over the years, maintaining that in the pre-elections, elections, and post-elections more support should be given to the media and  added that there should be continuous engagement and sustained support.

The President of SLAJ pointed out that in the 2018 elections, the media played a critical role to ensuring peaceful and credible elections.

Ahmed Sahid Nasralla pointed out that currently, albeit somehow late, they are trying to position the media for the upcoming elections in a way that they are seen as a reliable partner and key player in the entire process, and not as a tool for information dissemination only.

“We are working with partners to conduct training for media practitioners across the country in a number of areas including elections reporting, conflict-sensitive and gender-sensitive reporting, and adherence to the IMC Code of Practice and the SLAJ Code of Ethics; especially for community radio stations,” he disclosed.

He also mentioned how they are also working with partners to ensure the integrity of the information landscape so that citizens get access to credible, reliable and timely information on the elections to help them make informed decisions.

“Hence, we will be engaged in countering disinformation and hate speech around the elections through pre-bunking, fact-checking and debunking,” he stressed,also stating how they are working with the security sector to ensure the media support them to provide security for every Sierra Leonean and they also help the media to provide information to the public in a safe and conducive environment.

He said in addition, like they successfully did with the presidential debate in the 2018 elections, the media also want to continue to promote a culture of dialogue and tolerance through political debates.

The SLAJ President said in that regard, SLAJ is leading a consortium of 11 organizations drawn from CSOs, EMBs, women groups, disability and youth under the National Political Debates Committee (NPDC) platform to organize another presidential debate for the elections.

He maintained that if the resources are available in time, the media also wants to do lower level political debates to ensure that the elections are based on ideas and not on tribe or region or other divisive considerations.

Nasralla said it is no gainsaying that to do all of that, the media needs resources and unless the media gets those resources in a timely manner, the Media will only be employing the fire brigade approach, which is trying to put out the fire after it has started spreading when they could have prevented it by acting proactively.

President of SLAJ informed that Sierra Leone has had four democratic elections since the end of the war, two using Proportional Representation; the other two including the most recent (2018) the first past the post/single member constituency system was used.

He said in this year’s elections, it is going to be different because the country is going to use a different system altogether – a combination of PR systems.

He asked the following questions: What system are we using for the Presidential elections? What system are we using for Local Government elections? What specific system are we using for Parliamentary and Councillors elections? What are the thresholds for election to Council and Parliament?

How can independent candidates compete in these elections?

The SLAJ President said the forthcoming election is not the same as the country had in 1996 and 2002, which he said was only for Parliament, and that in 1996 it was the national block and 2002 District Block PR system.

In his view, this year the elections are more complicated.

He maintained that in order for the elections to be successful, the public needs to understand the mechanics of how they are going to be run stating that if the public doesn’t understand the methodology being used, the potential for confusion, misunderstanding or even conflict becomes very significant.

“The key role of the media in a democratic society is to provide information and education to the public,” he said adding how it is, therefore, very important that the media in Sierra Leone is empowered to be able to perform that role.

He said as of now, the media is not in a position to provide accurate information and education for the public because media practitioners themselves do not have a clear understanding of the different systems that will be used in the elections, particularly as it relates to the District Block PR system.

Nasralla said by now the media should be engaged in massive voter education and sensitization saying the media itself needs to be educated before they can educate the public, but stressed that the resources are not available.

He said there is a need to invest in community radio stations because they play a pivotal role in ensuring the participation of the bulk of the rural population in the elections.

“Community radio stations are hugely challenged; from ineffective governance and management structures to lack of resources,” he said stressing that Community radio stations only attract non-professionals as volunteers, and they lack the requisite knowledge and training to able to run such important platforms.

He said the only way out for them is training, training, training.

“In the last elections we did a lot of training for journalists across the country and we were able to largely minimize the potential for community radio stations to be used as platforms to fuel conflict,” he said stressing that most of those who benefitted from such training have moved on to better jobs.

The President of SLAJ stated that they have repeatedly called on the Government and the International Community who care about peace and national cohesion to invest in information and communication infrastructure.

“Our rural people need to have access to timely and reliable information on the activities of their central and local Governments,” he stressed.

Nasralla pointed out that Freedom of expression is fundamental in a democracy not only for the media but equally so for the voters and the politicians.

He said a huge task for this particular election is how we police the space to free it from hate speech, tribalism, toxic, divisive, and inflammatory statements.

“Therefore, as we call for responsible free speech, whether during debates or political activities/meetings, we equally call for cooperation and collaboration among the elections’ stakeholders,” he appealed adding that we must call out political leaders to be able to talk to their supporters to be law abiding and peaceful at all times.

He also suggested that they must call on politicians to stop sponsoring musicians to sing hate, division and use vulgarity but that they should be using musicians to sensitize and educate people about the elections.

“The entertainment industry, which also falls under the media in a sense, also has a huge role to play,” he stated.

According to the SLAJ President, studies have shown that countries that have come out of war and are trying to forge ahead a decade or two after, can easily slip back to conflict if those conditions that led to the war are not properly addressed.

He said, therefore, all need to collectively build that trust with one another and with the people.

“We need to cooperate and collaborate and we need to dialogue and share credible information,” he affirmed maintaining that SLAJ is committed to working with all partners to ensure we have credible, transparent, fair, and peaceful elections.

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