Delivering his keynote address at the SLAJ (Sierra Leone Association of Journalists) 2017 AGM (Annual General Meeting) in Makeni on the theme “Elections 2018: Media As A Catalyst For Issue Based Discourse”, the Chief Electoral Commissioner/Chairman of NEC (National Electoral Commissioner), Mohamed N’fah Alie Conteh assured that, no one will be disenfranchised” in the forthcoming polls to be held on 7th March, 2018.
Mr. N’fah Conteh assured that, as long as he remains the Chief |Electoral Commissioner/Chairman of NEC, he would ensure that, the Electoral Commission remains committed “to enhance the credibility of the electoral process, through the conduct of credible and transparent elections on 7th March 2018; using our legal framework and international best practice. The commission is also committed to work with the media to achieve peaceful, credible and transparent elections”.
Mr. N’fah Conteh informed the media that, ‘since the 1996 elections, the 2018 elections will be the first elections to be conducted without the supervision of a UN Mission approved by the UN Security Council. This means that, the 2018 elections are conducted solely by the commission and national staff. Also, indications are that the level of donor funding towards the 2018 elections will be significantly smaller than in previous electoral circles. However, we are grateful to the international community, through UNDP, for the support to the 2015-2019 electoral cycle through the SNEC (Support to NEC) project”.
See the full text of N’fah Conteh’s Keynote Address at the SLAJ 2017 AGM held in Makeni below.
KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY THE CHIEF ELECTORAL COMMISSIONER AND CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL ELECTORAL COMMISSION (NEC) DURING THE ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING OF THE SIERRA LEONE ASSOCIATION OF JOURNALISTS AT THE UNIMAK CONFERENCE HALL IN MAKENI ON FRIDAY 29TH SEPTEMBER, 2017.
Distinguished Personalities, Membership of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, Ladies and Gentlemen, I feel highly honored, to deliver a paper on the topic “Elections 2018: Media As A Catalyst For Issue Based Discourse.” I consider the choice of this topic appropriate and NEC appreciates that SLAJ has chosen me as Keynote Speaker to address this esteemed gathering as the Commission progresses with electoral activities for the conduct of the 7th March, 2018 elections.
I want at the outset to assure the media and all stakeholders in the electoral process, that the Electoral Commission is committed to enhance the credibility of the electoral process, through the conduct of credible and transparent elections on 7th Mach 2018: using our legal framework and international best practice. The Commission is also committed to work with the media to achieve peaceful, credible and transparent elections.
For an election to go well it must be free, fair, transparent and inclusive; i.e. free from manmade impediments and fair in the sense that the management of the process is seen to be impartial. It is important that voters participate in the elections from an informed and capacitated perspective. Thus, the essential elements of accessing information on electoral activities and governance become crucial. This is where the Media is absolutely necessary. The Media must be free to disseminate informed information about the electoral process in an unbiased manner, without pressure to twist the truth. In this modern age, the media is the most powerful influence on how an election runs inside the country and how it is perceived from outside.
The media has played very significant and critical roles in sustaining democracy, good governance, consolidating peace and electoral process in post-conflict Sierra Leone. Within the context of elections, this was highly exhibited during the conduct of all post-conflict elections in Sierra Leone, especially the 2007, 2008 and 2012 elections in which the Media was very exceptional in its support and contribution in not only information dissemination, but educating the public on key electoral processes that required thorough understanding. Let me mention, inter-alia notably the Independent Radio Network (IRN) with its effective community radio stations network, TV broadcasts, Panel discussions, propagating election related messages etc.
The NEC since its restructuring in 2005 has emerged as one of the most professional Electoral Management Bodies in the sub-region, with fully capacitated, technically inclined, experienced and competent staff. While the past elections had full international technical assistance, the Commission can now boast of self reliance in the conduct of its electoral activities with limited international technical assistance as was the case in 1996, 2002, 2007 and 2012.
Permit me to inform the general public, through you, that since the 1996 elections, the 2018 elections will be the first elections to be conducted without the supervision of a UN Mission approved by the UN Security Council. This means the 2018 elections are conducted solely by the Commission and national staff. Also, indications are that the level of donor funding towards the 2018 elections will be significantly smaller than in previous electoral cycles. However, we are grateful to the International Community, through the UNDP, for the support to the 2015-2019 electoral cycle through the SNEC (Support to NEC) project.
As a professional institution, mindful of our constitutional mandate, we have over the years remained independent and maintained our guiding principles winning public confidence and trust at both national and international levels. I hereby reaffirm in this gathering that the same confidence building, credibility, integrity and trust continues to be upheld by the current NEC Commission and staff. As stated already, we remain committed to conduct credible, transparent and impartial elections come 7th March 2017. Despite attacks and misunderstanding from certain quarters, the Commission remains untainted, and firm in upholding the laws, international best practices and values it stands for as a professional body.
We are on course with the Electoral Calendar and working assiduously on the next stage of the process which is the printing and distribution of Voter Identify Cards.
Some media houses and some civil society organizations may have their misinterpretations on current unfolding electoral issues and events (v is: Voter Registration, Exhibition, Provisional Voters Register and Final Voters Register) in the country. I hereby reassure all stakeholders, the international community, political parties and the electoral that electoral processes leading to the conduct of the 2018 elections have been handled professionally; hence no cause for alarm.
- The Electoral Management Body And The Media
- The media is essential to democracy, and a democratic election is impossible without the media.
- The media acts as a crucial watch dog to democratic election, safeguarding the transparency of the process and to report on issues concerning the electoral process.
- EMBs educate voters through the media on how to exercise their democratic right through the ballot box and on how, where and when to vote.
- EMBs use the Media as a vehicle for communicating messages to the electors, and monitoring vote counting on Election Day and results tallying processes.
- The media is a tool for promoting peaceful elections. The media must play the role of maintaining peace and preventing conflict.
- Political parties, candidates individuals and civil society groups use the media to communicate their messages to the public. They provide a forum for candidates and representatives of political parties to debate and present their ideas to the public. In this role, media impact our political views and opinions. We shape our opinions using the information provided to us through that platform. The media also provide a platform for the public to convey their political thoughts and feelings through phone calls to radio stations, text message etc.
- Elections are therefore a great challenge for the media and journalists need to know the election process, rules and activities in order to enable them report fairly on candidates, parties and issues. If the media has such important role to play in the access and dissemination of information about the electoral process, they must consequently possess the requisite qualities to fulfill this role.
- There is no gainsaying that DEMOCRACY is impossible without a free press. This is a precept that is deeply ingrained in democratic theory and practice. The press has been widely proclaimed as the “Fourah Estate”, a coequal branch of government that provides the check and balance without which government cannot be effective.
- NEC UPDATE ON THE ELECTORAL PROCESS
- Boundary Delimitation (BD)
- In 2016, the NEC reviewed electoral boundaries and products validated boundaries for:
- 132 constituencies
- 423 Wards
- In March 2017, the Provinces Act was passed creating.
- An Additional province
- 2 additional districts.
- 3 additional localities.
Revision of electoral boundaries is now completed and include the additional localities. The final validated boundaries are:
- 132 constituencies
- 446 Wards
- The BD Statutory Instrument was passed by Parliament in 2017
- Voter Registration
- Voter registration data capture was done over a 42-day period, 20th March-30th April, 2017.
- Exhibition of the Provisional Voter Register was held from 22nd to 27th
- Certified Final Voter Register completed on 6th September, 2017.
- Remaining voter registration processes include:
- Remaining voter registration processes include:
- Print and distribute voter cards.
Let me underscore the fact that all data related to the FVR are intact and all eligible voters remain enfranchised to participate in the 2018 elections.
- Legal Reforms on Nomination Fees
Following complaints by representatives of political parties on the high nomination fees, the commission reviewed the fees downwards and Parliament has started debating the statutory instrument.
- The Media as a Catalyst For issue Based Discourse
As we approach the 7th March 2018 elections, the role of the Media as a catalyst for issue based discourse need to be underscored. NEC and the Media should be seen engaging in critical emerging issues so as the advance recommendation for immediate solutions. Within this context, NEC is advocating for strengthened Media engagement, participation, and collaboration to enhance information sharing and public understanding on key electoral processes.
The identified critical issues that require the attention and input of the Media on the basis of discourse include:
- Inadequate information sharing and confidence building with the public;
- Delays in disbursement of funds for key electoral activities;
- Inadequate Civic, Electoral and Voter education because of dearth of funds;
- Inadequate engagement with the Media at national and district levels;
- Communication gap on uniform messaging at district, chiefdom and ward levels for the dissemination of information to all stakeholders in the electoral process;
- Exposure of electoral malpractices and fraud in collaboration with the Media
- Averting hate speeches and manipulation of citizens through bribes and other illegal practices during campaign periods.
- The Media dissociating itself completely from partisan roles during election campaigns or rallies.
- Inadequate training and capacity building initiatives between NEC and the Media.
- The Role Of New Media
- New Media has increasingly become an integral component of the media landscape and an important outlet for candidates, political parties, elections management bodies, and citizens. Despite some of the drawbacks, increased worldwide Internet access will only further the importance of new media in democracy and elections. Citizens have more avenues to reach candidates and campaigns and share information than ever, presenting new opportunities and challenges for democracy promotion and new possibilities for democratic consolidation around world.
- Unlike the 2007 & 2012 elections, I forsee the new media playing a crucial role for the 2018 elections working closely with NEC in harnessing issues that require timely intervention or clarification. As members of this great profession, I want to encourage and appeal to you to use the new media cautiously, as a misuse will negatively impact the 2018 elections.
- Identified Challenges For The Upcoming Elections
Elections are very expensive to run. Beside war, it poses the most logistical challenge any country could undertake. Elections involve the participation of all eligible citizens and its impact reaches all corners of the country., in the last few years we have been able to achieve a few things with support from the Government of Sierra Leone, including the construction of a new national warehouse and the procurement of vehicles to support electoral operations.
There are however as few challenges which need to be addressed. These include:
- Timely disbursement of funds to carry out electoral activities
- Construction of regional offices and warehouses.
- The Bill for the review of the nomination fees for Presidential, Parliamentary, Local Council and Village Head elections is presently in parliament and will be debated in the coming weeks. NEC hopes that it will be passed into law in time for it to come into effect before the nomination process scheduled for early in 2018.
- NEC is yet to undertake massive sensitizing of the electorate on the new electoral boundaries due to lack for funds.
- The setting up of the Result Management System should have started earlier this month but due to lack of funds it is put on hold. NEC is hoping that the required funds will be made available in time for the process not to cause a delay in the electoral process.
- Payment to Service providers including staff that worked during the exhibition exercise is stalled due to the unavailability of funds.
- RECOMMENDATIONS TO ENHANCE THE MEDIA’S ROLE AS CATALYST FOR ISSUE BASED DISCOURSE
Though the media has made a lot of impact in enhancing issue based discourse I will venture to bring some recommendations as a way forward.
- Journalists can make full use of their potential to contribute to the consolidation of democracy if their rights are protected. Moreover, they need to have the requisite skills for the kind of unique and in-depth reporting that new democracies require.
- Media independence is guaranteed if media organization are financially viable, free from the intervention of government and political leaders and operate in a competitive media environment.
- Journalists need to be protected by laws that guarantee their rights. In many new democracies, old laws dating back from the authoritarian past impose harsh punishments for libel, restrict access to official information and impose strict licensing requirement, for media companies. The repeal of these laws and the enactment of more liberal legislation can have a liberating effect on the media.
- There is also the need for judicial and legal reforms that ensure courts will defend the rights of journalist and punish those guilty of doing them harm, or they themselves infringing on the rights of others. In many countries, press association like SLAJ have played an important role in monitoring, protesting and raising public outrage against attacks on journalists.
- A professional press is a more effective watchdog and forum for public debate and by extension serves as a catalyst for issue based discourse. I want to recommend to SLAJ that it must strive for its membership to be given training in reporting electoral related matters.
The media is not the sole source of information for voters, but in a world dominated by mass communications, it determines the political agenda, even in less technologically developed countries. A report by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies puts it this way.
“Elections constitute a basic challenge to the media, putting its impartiality and objectivity to the test. The task of the media, especially national media outlets, is not and should not be to function as a mouthpiece for any government body or particular candidate. Its basic role is to enlighten and educate the public and act as a neutral, objective platform for the free debate of all points of view”.
It is for this reason that election observation teams, for example, routinely comment upon media access and coverage of elections as a criterion for judging whether elections are credible, free and fair. Monitoring the media during election periods has become an increasingly common practice, using a combinations of statistical analysis and the techniques of media studies and discuss analysis to measure media’s role in an election.
From the analysis given above, the Media has more role to play as an agent for the dissemination of electoral education for the 2018 elections, for democratization, peace and sustainable development in Sierra Leone. In summary, freedom is when the people can speak, democracy is when the government listens, the media is the messenger. “Good journalism”, according to Cammack, Diana (1998) “is like good medicine. Its values should not be political, cultural of racial. It helps support the good health of democracy.
Thank you all for your attention.