Providing Access To All Candidates: Is It Always Costless?

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)
Few days ago, I wrote an article entitled: “Community Radio And Its Ownership: An Issue Raised At A One-Day Workshop Election Coverage Workshop,” in which I stressed the need to review the modus operandi and structures  of what is referred to as “community radios’ when, in fact, they are not community radios, in its true sense and meaning. The article came against the backdrop of issues raised at a one-day workshop to review election code, as the nation prepares for the special senatorial election.

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.

As reported, 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.

Following a painstaking review of the code of conduct which was facilitated by Prof Wureh, the members agreed to abide by the code. One of the issues, as discussed was ”access” by the media to those contesting the election. Access, like other words, may have many lexical definitions. But the one I feel is appropriate is that which refers to it as, ‘the freedom or ability to make use of something.” as contained in the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition).

Today it is not strange that the media is being urged to give access to those contesting in the pending senatorial race. Whenever there is such process, the media is always asked to give “access to all candidates,” or is sometimes phrased as “equal access to all candidates.” Yes, this is true; but at the same time, those contesting must be made to known that it is not always ‘freebee or freebie’, as there might be a cost associated with certain coverage.

This is why it is advisable for candidates to have in their budget, a portion of one of their budget items some amount for media or public relations activities. In fact, those contesting MUST have their public relations officers (PROs) or media coordinators to handle all of their media-related activities. Don’t ask me whether those contesting are au courant about this. If they are not aware, then, this is an opportunity to be aware. Indeed, people venturing into electioneering should be aware that campaigning is capital-intensive, meaning that it cannot be done without a cost.

While it is true that the media, as a public institution, is under obligation to provide access to people in getting to the larger society, it is equally important to point out that the issue of public service center on NEWS, and not insults or any comment or issue that is of no interest to the public. In fact, the basic definition of news is that it must be “something of public interest,” to be told to the public, and not any foolishness that is not of public interest, or “languages or materials that have the potential to inflame passions and aggravate tension,” as the code urges the medias to “promote tolerance, peace and reconciliation during and after the elections.”

And so it rests with the candidates to say things or do things of public interest. But to expect the media to turn a ‘non-newsy’ item to news, is unthinkable and would be a complete deception, as the media is not there to create news, but to report with attributions from the speaker or the candidate.  Emphatically, let me say that not all of the candidates will make “NEWS.” As it is said in law, ‘the court cannot do for you what you should do for yourself.’

Let me also say that there might be candidates who, knowing how to manipulate the media, may have “free ride,” while others may rely on popularity; howbeit, campaigning is not for paupers, insolvent or penniless people. It means one venturing into a political campaigning process must be financially prepared.

I am raising this issue because many times those contesting for public offices and are involved in campaigning, cry foul because the media does not concentrate on them. Yes, this might be true because they do not make news. This is why the code uses the issue of “fair coverage to all political parties, candidates, coalition and alliances.”

Again, fairness in the coverage does not mean publishing or broadcasting anything. It is only urging the media not to be bias, by depriving others of being heard or seen by the voters, even if the person says something of public interest.

It must be noted here that the independent media, as public institution, is also a business that must raise funds to operate, pay its legitimate taxes such as withholding, and also cater to its employees. Therefore, it needs funds to operate, and that campaigning session, sometimes referred to as one of the ‘harvest seasons” for the independent media, is one of those times that the media “makes money,” not for news stories, but for supplement or advertisement. It could be in the form of a spot on the radio or TV as well as a placement in the newspaper.

But at the same time, while the independent media needs money to sustain itself or remain operational, it is equally important to note that it has a responsibility to avoid those publications or broadcast that has the propensity to incite violence or resort to mudslinging, character assassination, something that could mar the process.

Equally so, it must distinguish between falsehood and truth, as “attribution” can be no excuse for falsehood. When we speak of attribution in journalism, it refers to a situation in which a journalist wants to insist upon publishing a falsehood that he/she quoted someone. This is no defense, as the media can be held liable for libel or slander, for such falsehood.

As the candidates embark on the campaigning process which started yesterday, it is worth mentioning that while the media is required to give access to all of the candidates, the candidates must know that there is a difference between news, supplement or advertisement.

Also, as stated, the media must know the difference between falsehood and truth, or else, the media would be held liable for defamation or blamed for unwarranted publication and broadcast. I Rest My Case.

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