Keeping Elections Free and Fair

JHR's Executive Director Rachel Pulfer on how her organization has helped promote balanced coverage of the election in Sierra Leone.
By: /
November 20, 2012

Kelvin Lewis is on the phone from his office in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The editor-in-chief of Awoko, arguably Sierra Leone’s most influential and credible newspaper, is talking about his newspaper’s coverage strategy in the lead-up to the elections this November. The strategy, he says, centres around ensuring issues, not personality politics, drive the debate in a country where politics can (literally) be a blood sport.

In the run-up to the elections, Lewis had more basic problems than getting substantive issues on the front page. “I’ve been spending part of my day, every day, talking with the chief of police,” he said at the time. “The police have decreed that no one can move around on elections day … except police. But my journalists can’t cover the elections if they can’t move around.”

Right up to election day on Nov. 17, the chief’s response was blunt. If Lewis wanted Awoko journalists to cover the elections, they could do so by hitching a ride in police cars on the day voters go to polls. Otherwise, journalists were to stay in their offices – or at home. If they didn’t, they could face intimidation, incarceration, or worse.

This is elections coverage in 2012, Sierra Leone-style. It’s typical of what journalists can expect in places where a misphrased sentence can mean the difference between a lively debate and a riot. It’s also just one of thousands of reasons Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) worked across the media sector in the lead-up to the 2012 vote.

JHR is Canada’s largest media-development organization. For the past 10 years, the organization has sent more than 300 expert journalism trainers to work side-by-side with journalists in post-conflict, transitional societies such as Sierra Leone, mentoring them on a form of accountability journalism that foregrounds human rights issues and holds authorities to account. This mentorship is intended to strengthen the media’s independence and capacity to play its rightful role in the democratization process, as referee between citizens and state. In so doing, JHR trainers work to ensure that, through media, citizens’ concerns are heard and citizens’ issues are helping set the public agenda.

Media development is relatively new in development circles. Long regarded with suspicion by donors concerned about the perceived political risk, it has to date been a niche initiative – a poor cousin to the worthy work of well- and orphanage-builders planet-wide. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has long included a media component in its tool assessing governance and democracy in developing countries, but that was the exception, not the rule. Most donor agencies’ templates for governance assessment did not, and still do not, include an explicit media focus.

However, in the past 10 years, media development’s pioneers have enjoyed considerable success. Relatively tiny amounts of upfront investment have resulted in spectacular impacts that are frequently system-wide. Stories produced under the mentorship of JHR trainers in Liberia on one project alone, the Good Governance Through Strengthened Media program – a partnership with local media non-profit the Liberia Media Center in Monrovia and financed by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) – have helped to get corrupt cabinet ministers fired, doctor-less hospitals staffed, schools refurbished, and prisons served with electricity, and have catalyzed a major public debate around the country’s minimum wage. Furthermore, Columbia University professor Lincoln Mitchell’s evaluation of JHR’s United Nations-financed project in Sierra Leone, which ran from 2006 to 2009, found that though the scope of JHR’s intervention was narrow – working with select local journalists – the impact was surprisingly broad. That’s because working with media also means working with that media’s audience – a phenomenon known in media development as the media multiplier effect. By training just more than 200 journalists in Sierra Leone, at an average cost of less than $200,000 a year, JHR was able to reach a total audience of 1.5 million Sierra Leoneans. Mitchell cited JHR’s work in Sierra Leone as one of the top 10 projects implemented to date by the United Nations Democracy Fund.

In light of such value for money, paired with the very real potential of systemic impact, the practice of working to strengthen a free press in developing countries has gained significant credibility. In the past 10 years, donor agencies – from DFID and the European Union to the Swedish International Development Agency and the World Bank – have put much greater emphasis on the importance of working with the media to improve governance in developing countries. The World Bank’s Guidance Note on Bank Multi-Stakeholder Engagement goes so far as to lay out best practices for media development, citing the bank’s Governance and Anti-Corruption Strategy, which stresses the importance of developing independent and competitive media that can investigate, monitor, and provide feedback on government performance, including corruption.

As James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, puts it, a free press “is not a luxury. A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development. If you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, then you cannot build up the public consensus needed to bring about change.”

Never is such work more crucial than during an election period in a fragile, post-conflict society undergoing the complex transition to democracy. Too often, at such a time, the country in question dissolves into team-on-team hyper-partisanship. Elections coverage is reduced to keeping score between sides, and discussion of issues evaporates in the rush to get one team or the other elected. In the worst scenario, elections coverage descends into hate speech, in which radio stations and newspapers owned by politicians use their air time and space to hurl insults at the other side.

Happily, the broadcasting of hate speech with the potential to incite mass violence is now a crime under international law. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has recognized the relationship between hate speech and genocide by trying the world’s first “incitement to genocide” cases, convicting radio broadcasters, a newspaper editor, and even a pop star for the crime in the process. Following suit, the International Criminal Court indicted a Kenyan radio host for broadcasts preceding the post-election violence of 2007-2008 in Kenya.

However, few Sierra Leonean journalists covering elections in Sierra Leone in 2012 are aware of the potential international legal consequences of hyper-partisan, inflammatory coverage. As such, in a country where democracy is young and peace fragile, the way the media covers an election can mean the difference between a move forward into genuine democracy and a retreat to civil war.

Journalists for Human Rights has worked in Sierra Leone since 2007. The organization’s first two programs in the country focused on how to cover elections responsibly and fairly with a high degree of accuracy. Trainers placed at the state broadcaster and in influential local media worked hard to ensure that coverage was balanced – if one politician was quoted, the other parties had to be quoted as well; if one issue was presented from a sponsoring politician’s point of view, then the affected constituency also needed to be consulted.

Those elections were tense, but in the end, the new president, Ernest Bai Koroma, took power peacefully. This represented the first bloodless transfer of power since the end of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war in 2003. JHR obviously cannot take credit for that extraordinary outcome – there was significant United Nations presence in the country, and several other media-development initiatives ongoing. However, JHR was one of the few organizations directly credited by local journalists with helping to keep the tone of coverage free and fair. Ibrahim Seibureh of the Concord Times, another influential newspaper editor in Freetown at the time, said, “JHR trainers promoted a more professional, fair, accurate and balanced form of elections coverage, leading to the first peaceful transfer of power in a generation.” In subsequent years, the BBC’s development arm, BBC World Service Trust (since renamed BBC Media Action) decided both to partner with JHR on human rights coverage, and to borrow JHR’s unique model of long-term mentorship.

JHR’s current program in Sierra Leone, funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, emphasizes human rights and good governance through strengthened media. However, elections coverage is still an important part of the mix, particularly given that this cycle of elections was the first since the war to be fought without significant United Nations oversight or support.

Part of JHR’s model is to hire charismatic local journalists to run programs as the public faces and leaders of the organization’s work in-country. This year, the elections strategy was developed and implemented by Yeama Thompson, in consultation with head office project manager Kathryn Sheppard and local and international trainer staff. A former newspaper editor from Freetown, Thompson has also worked on development initiatives across Africa and in the U.K., as well as for JHR as a senior trainer in Liberia.

As Thompson explains, this time around, JHR trainers have focused attention on mentoring journalists on elections coverage before, during, and after the elections. The team has adopted a multi-pronged strategy that includes deploying locally trained journalism experts to work with journalists across the country; workshops in Freetown; reporting trips to get journalists out of the capital and into covering issues in the provinces; and forums designed to bring journalists, government officials, and civil-society leaders together so that all parties are clear on why the media needs to cover elections responsibly but independently.

One of the most important aspects of JHR’s program in Sierra Leone is its commitment to sustainability – ensuring the work the organization is doing continues once the organization wraps up its activities. JHR trainer Nina deVries has been working throughout the year with three local expert journalism trainers, Kevin Lamdo, Martha Kargbo and Samba Koroma, to do just that – with powerful results. To illustrate: In August, Lamdo published a story showing how the nominations fees charged to candidates had been surreptitiously increased to levels that made running for office financially inaccessible for most Sierra Leoneans. A few weeks later, the fees were reduced to affordable levels. (Kargbo’s story on what it is like to cover the Sierra Leonean elections in 2012 as a Sierra Leonean journalist is available here.)

Another major issue is security: how to ensure journalists can cover elections with fairness and accuracy without inciting violent reactions from either side. Trainer Damon van der Linde – who also contributed to this package of coverage, here – led a workshop series over the two months leading up to the elections focused on how to cover elections. The emphasis was on how to ensure citizens’ issues make it into elections debate, but also on how to interact with government officials, how to do follow-up reporting post-elections that is designed to hold politicians to their promises, and what resources are available to journalists in-country to protect them from threats and violent retaliation.

Curiously, a dominant theme of coverage among van der Linde’s mentees has become access to the voting process for people with disabilities. “The National Electoral Commission banned the use of private vehicles, which threatened to infringe on the rights of those with mobility challenges,” van der Linde explains. “Meanwhile a lack of ballots designed for people with visual impairments was a serious concern.”

Among van der Linde’s mentees is Emeric Roy Coker of Universal Radio. Roy Coker did a report on how people with disabilities would be able to access voting centres. “I wanted to concentrate on how they will be aided at different polling stations,” he explained. “Most of the terrain is difficult to access, so it would be a problem if there was no conveyance. NEC then provided bus services to people on voting day that are free with voter ID. I think my report played a significant influence on NEC to provide transportation to those who need it.”

Gunther Bai Daramy of We Yone Newspaper did a story on the lack of female aspirants in the 2012 elections. Because his newspaper is owned by the All People’s Congress political party, it is obviously biased. Even so, Daramy was able to influence the party, having it pledge to give women more roles in party leadership. “Women have all the credentials, so the response was so great. I received close to 300 responses on Facebook,” said Daramy. (As is the case in Canada, a Sierra Leonean journalist’s Facebook and Twitter followings have become an instant way to gauge audience reaction.)

In the effort to get rural issues onto the public airwaves, van der Linde co-ordinates strategy with JHR/BBC Media Action trainer Andrew Ewoku. Ewoku is placed in three community radio stations – one each in Freetown, Port Loko, and Bo District. His training emphasizes the links between human-rights stories and the manifestoes of the contesting parties. “At New Song Radio Station in Bo District,” Ewoku explains, “I worked with a journalist called Gregory Jusu on a story about a dilapidated and precarious school block that threatened the lives of over eighty pupils during the rain season.” The story didn’t just get access to education on the electoral agenda – in that instance, it also prompted contesting politicians and NGOs advocating for better education and facilities for children in Bo District to make generous donations to see to it that the district authorities build a permanent structure.

JHR’s trainers have received significant assistance through the organization’s new Short Term Trainer Program, a set of partnerships between top Canadian media companies, and the NGO. Expert trainers Christina Stevens from Global TV and Kimberly Gale of CBC were paired with journalists to mentor them on covering important issues during the elections, guiding their mentees through interviews and putting together stories that are fair and balanced. Stevens was placed with the state broadcaster, Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service. In an environment in which, traditionally, the state broadcaster has been seen as a mouthpiece of the ruling party, it was Stevens’ job to try and ensure that stories were covered with a degree of balance. Stevens does not claim to have accomplished that lofty goal in its entirety, but separate reports in-country indicate that through these elections, the state broadcaster has been regarded as largely credible. (Stevens also contributed to this package of coverage, here.)

Whether all these efforts towards promoting fair, responsible, and balanced coverage bear fruit is yet to be seen. Though Sierra Leoneans went to the polls on Nov. 17 in an election largely regarded as calm, they will not find out the results for at least another week. In between, there is plenty of opportunity for malfeasance: ballot boxes could go missing; crucial votes could go strategically uncounted. JHR’s trainers and networks of journalists are busy covering it all – but ultimately, as Awoko editor Kelvin Lewis puts it, the way the elections go will be a test for Sierra Leoneans themselves.

“The major concern is not that the elections process won’t go smoothly,” Lewis explains. “The major concern is that the results will not be accepted by the losing side.” Though local media cannot pretend to have the power to contain that particular issue, they can do their best to cover breaking developments fairly and with accuracy – and, ultimately, without having to hitch a ride on police trucks in order to get the story on election day. In that effort, they will continue to be assisted by JHR’s trainers, both through and past this elections cycle, for as long as they are clearly needed.

Also in the series


The Tipping Point

Damon van der Linde on whether the election will be a tipping point into established democracy or renewed violence.

Watermelon Politics

Christina Stevens on the green-versus-red politics of the Sierra Leone election.

Interesting but Risky

Martha Kargbo on what it's like to be a journalist covering the election.

Sparkle and Splinters

Rosalind Raddatz on why Sierra Leone’s resource wealth has yet to change its people’s fortunes.

Brave Reporting

Bob Press on the key role journalists play in defending democracy and human rights in Africa.

One Eye on the Ballot

Ato Kwamena Dadzie reflects on experiences working on radio in Ghana.

Business as Usual?

Edward Akuffo on whether or not the upcoming elections in Ghana and Sierra Leone will mean fundamental change.