The President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Ahmed Sahid Nasralla has spoken on the importance of the media during the 2023 general elections.

He was speaking at the official launch of the Project: ‘Ensuring Locally-Led Elections are Credible and Transparent (ELECT) in Sierra Leone on Thursday 16 February 2023 at ECSL Conference Hall in Freetown.

Read his full statement below:

Opening courtesies…

In today’s world, media plays a huge role in elections. It is the primary source of information for voters and can shape public opinion. Media can influence the outcome of an election by providing information about the candidates and their policies, as well as by providing a platform for candidates to express their views.

The media can also set the agenda for the elections by ensuring that the politicians discuss issues that are close to the heart of the electorates.

However, Media can also be used to spread hate and false information, and manipulate public opinion to the wrong end.

The media has always been a partner but somehow our efforts have largely gone unrecognised, in the sense that most people, and organisations/institutions as well, only see the media as a tool for information dissemination. But we believe that the media is a partner and key player in elections and beyond. So, we cannot be an afterthought.

Looking at the media currently, support seems to be coming closer to the elections.but issues around covering elections need to be sustainable over the years. In the pre-elections, elections, and post-elections more support should be given to the media. There should be continuous engagement and sustained support.

In the 2018 elections, the media played a critical role to ensure peaceful and credible elections.

*Where the media sits currently ahead of the elections*

Currently, albeit somehow late, we are trying to position the media for the upcoming elections in a way that we are seen as a reliable partner and key player in the entire process, and not as a tool for information dissemination only.

We are working with partners to conduct training for media practitioners across the country in a number of areas including elections reporting, conflict-sensitive and gender-sensitive reporting, and adherence to the IMC Code of Practice and the SLAJ Code of Ethics; especially for community radio stations.

We are also working with partners to ensure the integrity of the information landscape so that citizens get access to credible, reliable and timely information on the elections to help them make informed decisions.

Hence, we will be engaged in countering disinformation and hate speech around the elections through pre-bunking, fact-checking, and debunking.

We are working with the security sector to ensure we support them to provide security for every Sierra Leonean and they also help us to provide information to the public in a safe and conducive environment.

In addition, like we successfully did with the presidential debate in the 2018 elections, we also want to continue to promote a culture of dialogue and tolerance through political debates. In this regard, SLAJ is leading a consortium of 11 organisations drawn from CSOs, EMBs, women groups, disability and youth under the National Political Debates Committee (NPDC) platform to organise another presidential debate for this elections. If the resources are available in time, we also want to do lower level political debates to ensure that the elections are based on ideas and not on tribe or region or other divisive considerations.

It is no gainsaying that to do all of these, the media needs resources and unless the media gets these resources in a timely manner, we will only be employing the fire brigade approach, which is trying to put out the fire after it has started spreading when we could have prevented it by acting proactively.

*What we should be doing now*

Sierra Leone has had four democratic elections since the end of the war, two using Proportional Representation; the other two including the most recent (2018) the first past the post/single member constituency system was used.

In this year’s elections, it is going to be different because we are going to use a different system altogether – a combination of PR systems.

What system are we using for the Presidential elections? What system are we using for Local Government elections? What specific system are we using for Parliamentary and Councillors elections? What are the thresholds for election to Council and Parliament?
How can independent candidates compete in these elections?

This election is not the same as we had in 1996 and 2002, which was only for Parliament, and 1996 it was the national block and 2002 District Block PR system.

This year the elections are more complicated.

In order for the elections to be successful, the public needs to understand the mechanics of how they are going to be run. If the public doesn’t understand the methodology being used, the potential for confusion, misunderstanding or even conflict becomes very significant.
The key role of the media in a democratic society is to provide information and education to the public. It is, therefore, very important that the media in Sierra Leone is empowered to be able to perform this role.

As of now, the media is not in a position to provide accurate information and education for the public because media practitioners themselves do not have a clear understanding of the different systems that will be used in these elections, particularly as it relates to the District Block PR system.
By now the media should be engaged in massive voter education and sensitisation. The media itself needs to be educated before we can educate the public, but the resources are not available.

*Community radio stations*

We need to invest in community radio stations because they play a pivotal role in ensuring the participation of the bulk of the rural population in the elections.

Community radio stations are hugely challenged; from ineffective governance and management structures to lack of resources.
Community radio stations only attract non-professionals as volunteers, and they lack the requisite knowledge and training to able to run such important platforms.
The only way out for them is training, training, training. In the last elections we did a lot of training for journalists across the country and we were able to largely minimise the potential for community radio stations to be used as platforms to fuel conflict. But most of those who benefitted from such training have moved on to better jobs.

We have repeatedly called on the Government and the international community who care about peace and national cohesion to invest in information and communication infrastructure. Our rural people need to have access to timely and reliable information on the activities of their central and local governments.

*Freedom of expression*

Freedom of expression is fundamental in a democracy. Not only for the media but equally so for the voters and the politicians. How do we police the space to free it from hate speech, tribalism, toxic, divisive, and inflammatory statements? That is the huge task for this particular elections.

Therefore, as we call for responsible free speech, whether during debates or political activities/meetings, we equally call for cooperation and collaboration among the elections’ stakeholders.

We must call out political leaders to be able to talk to their supporters to be law abiding and peaceful at all times.

We must call on politicians to stop sponsoring musicians to sing hate, division and use vulgarity. They should be using musicians to sensitise and educate people about the elections.

The entertainment industry, which also falls under the media in a sense, also has a huge role to play.

Studies have shown that countries that have come out of war and are trying to forge ahead a decade or two after, can easily slip back to conflict if those conditions that led to the war are not properly addressed.
Therefore, we need to collectively build that trust with one another and with the people; we need to cooperate and collaborate, and we need to dialogue and share credible information.

SLAJ is committed to working with all partners to ensure we have credible, transparent, fair, and peaceful elections.

I thank you all.”