It is no doubt that Liberia’s burgeoning democracy is evidently imperfect. Challenges to governance are pronounced; the most frequently spoken of being allegations of corruption and the lackluster attitude with which government has dealt with the abuse of public trust and authority.
Amidst the broad scheme of imperfections, one area that has thrived since the ascendancy of the Johnson-Sirleaf administration is the media.
The media in Liberia are experiencing what can be considered a dramatic departure from their historical battered past. Unlike in previous times, when the lay of the political space was illiberal and hidebound toward views that dissented from those of the government of the time, the current political space is for the first time, markedly liberal with the media.
The government’s commitment to the Table Mountain Declaration dealing with the repeal of criminal defamation laws and the signing into law of the Freedom of Information Act are testaments to the liberalization of the media landscape.
Notwithstanding, a few untoward incidents like those which involved the FrontPage Africa, the New Broom and the National Chronicle newspapers, any serious assessment will confirm that the media today are not being censored or gagged rather they are being provided the free democratic space to ply their trade, expand their activities and reasonably flourish as businesses.
Whether quantitative expansion in the media occasioned by the liberal political space is having qualitative impacts on reportage and professional development is an issue without gainsaying that requires a great deal of probing. The media landscape in Liberia is for many reasons very nuanced. Perhaps with a few exceptions, even for a not too keen spectator, it is difficult not to observe some degree of partisan journalism.
The media landscape is such that there is constant inducement for legitimate debates to be trashed by procured views. These procured views may not necessarily belong to media practitioners but media houses carry them anyway and this creates inference of complicity.
Thus, as the October elections draw closer, one question that keeps echoing is: How can the media help safeguard the peace? This question is significant for several reasons. Firstly, the media has real-time ability to influence public opinion, public policy, the platforms of political parties, the framing of local and national perceptions, and in affecting the conduct of elections.
On the whole, this ability is similar to what is known as the “CNN factor” or the “CNN effect.” This entirely means that the media have the power to sanction nonviolence as much as they have the power to sanction the opposite. A constant reminder is the role that radio played in spreading hate messages and in stirring extremism among ordinary citizens during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.
Secondly, the October election holds a lot of implications for the democratic development of the country. If the elections are held under a nonviolent atmosphere and the country is transitioned to a new administration that will mark the first time in 78 years that power was transferred from one living Liberian president to another.
Also, the pending elections will underscore the first transfer of power from one democratically elected president to another since the end of the civil war in 2003. Moreover, the elections of October will present a defining moment when Liberians will have to demonstrate to themselves and the global community that the dividends of the nearly 14 years of peace have made significant advances toward nation-building, reconciliation, the widening of the democratic space, economic progress, a new international image and greater desire for maintaining peace and stability, among several.
My ideas and /or recommendations, which follow on how the Liberia media can help in safeguarding the peace, may not be exhaustive and perhaps are already being reflexively discussed. Even so, they definitely present a plausible framework for viewing the media role in 2017.
News headlines, whether on the radio or in print, are deliberately crafted to elicit certain outcomes. They can sometimes be very catchy that they often tend to sway attention from the innards, spirit and intent of actual narratives.
It has been commonly observed that some media institutions publish headlines that convey messages that are totally different from would be concluded after reading the contents of the stories. Media owners and media practitioners can contribute to safeguarding the peace by reducing expressions that tend to promote the disparaging and belittling of one political actor or institution, or one tribe by another.
This may give rise to some ethical concerns as the media are under obligation to grant fair coverage. Yet, in some instances, editing out the punch lines of political parties that may qualify as being provocative or divisive can go a long way in maintaining social cohesion between their enthusiasts. When reporting on campaign speeches reducing defamation and hate and personal attacks is critical for the media.
The media have a responsibility to ensure harmony in the society through communicating beneficial information for all the people and not to take advantage of their mostly seemly non-sophistication. Through this the media can further avail themselves for being used as tools to form peaceful links between varying political interests to build peace and resolve conflict.
Stop being the publicists and spokespersons of political parties and politicians
The media can air the news and publish the stories coming from political parties and political actors but media practitioners must not be seen as the publicists and spokespersons of particular political parties.
When media practitioners conduct themselves like the spokespersons and publicists of political parties their independence and watchdog role is compromised. And when the independence of the media is compromised there springs forth a happy-go-lucky tendency by media owners and practitioners toward the dreadful consequences that can be the eventual results of a biased media.
Simply, journalists must not allow their political alignments or party interests obscure their understanding that Liberia is collectively bigger than the political or financial interests of any single group.
By reducing sensationalism in reportage of political stories and ceasing from appearing like the spokespersons and publicists of political parties and politicians, along with intensifying the call for citizens to comport themselves responsibly, while also hammering home the message that without peace and stability progress is farfetched, media practitioners will not only demonstrate that they are not self-interested they will also be making a case that they are well-deserving of the liberal space landscape they now enjoy.
Baba Sillah, is a Liberia academic and researcher. He’s currently undertaking postgraduate research at the Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan. His areas of interest include the relatively new multi-disciplinary frontier of Global Studies