By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)
As the special senatorial election, now set for December 16 approaches, there have been efforts by the National Elections Commission (NEC) and others, including the Press Union of Liberia PUL) to conduct activities to ensure the success of the process. Undeniably, one of such is public awareness and education, as well as media coverage of the process. It was in this light that the PUL and NEC last week held a one-day workshop with media practitioners. The forum was principally geared towards reviewing the code of conduct for media coverage for the 2014 Special Senatorial Election.
The one-day event funded by USAID through the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), brought together stakeholders who reviewed the existing PUL Election Code of Conduct that was developed to guide the media in providing professional coverage of the special election. It was facilitated by the Chairperson of the Mass Communications Department of the University of Liberia, Professor Weade Kobbah Wureh and the head of the Press Union’s Grievance and Ethics Committee, Frank B. Sainworla and Atty Lamia Kpargboi, office-in-charge of the Liberia Media Center.
Specifically, Prof Wureh handled the issue on the review of the “Election Code of Conduct” of the Union, while Sainworla did the review on “Ethical Issues In The Liberian Media.” Atty Kpargboi, as the first speaker, rapped on “Lesson Learnt From Media Coverage of 2011 Election.” Accordingly, the three speakers frankly shared their experiences on the topic assigned them to guide those who would be covering the special election to avoid making some of the mistakes made in the past and how they should conduct themselves during the process.
The validation exercise at the YMCA on Broad Street is expected to be followed by regional trainings across the country to ensure that journalists understand and abide by the code while exercising their professional duties to inform and educate the public about the electoral process. Participants at Friday’s workshop were drawn from the mainstream media from Monrovia and rural community radios.
During the one-day interactive forum, one issue that generated much debate as candidates prepare to begin campaigning is the operation of community-based radio stations throughout the country. According to statistics, there are about 55 community radio stations throughout the country. But the sticky issue relates to ownership and the problem associated with this ownership. Some of these stations are said to be owned by politicians who naturally are dictating the order of the day.
The issue came about on people having access to local radios. Many of those who spoke including the head of the Community Radios Association, William Quire raised concern about the ownership of these radios and interference by some county leaders. It was also said that some of the politicians put money into the budget to help their area, but are claiming ownership. Mr. Quire described the situation as very serious and that the Association was finding it difficult to deal with the many problems because of capacity problem.
The president of the union, Mr. Abdullah K. Kamara, who corroborated these concerns raised, also agreed with the issue of the nomenclature of the name of these radios, noting that in the global context, it conveys a different impression, as this is not really the case, as they appear to be owned by the community, when, in fact this is not true. Furthermore, he expressed concern about the tenure of members of the board of these community radios.
Indeed, from what were raised during the one-day workshop, there is a need to review the issue of separating what is really a community radio and those owned by politicians. As the name depicts, “community radios,” simply means something that is owned and operated by the community to enhance development in that locale. But to refer to such facility as ‘community radio’ which only operates at the whims and caprices of politicians, then, it should not be considered a “community radio” because the community has no saying or stake in its operations.
Howbeit, this does not preclude citizens, no matter of their background whether politician or not from operating a media institution, as it is done on the national scene. However, such cannot be considered or be dubbed as a “community radio.” Perhaps, it could carry a different name that would denote private ownership, with special interest and not necessarily the interest of that community. It could be to promote personal agenda of that owner, who upon achieving his or her goal, or is no longer in public office, may become uninterested in operating it, as there is no reason for that anymore.
Once more, I take interest in this matter and call on the PUL and some of its partners, including IREX, Carter Center, Liberia Media Center and Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMSP) to begin to work out the modality that would lead to distinguishing what should be a community radio and what privately owned radio station should be described. This may not come to fruition for this ending election, but the process of making them community-owned can begin now.
In addition, the PUL and its partners could also work on the tenure and structure of members of the board of these community radios, as well as the involvement of the county in sustaining the station. Until this is done, we would continue to mislead the public of having more than 50 community radios, when, in fact, this is not the reality, or actual picture on what is considered as community radios. I Rest My Case.