Liberia: Media cautioned about endorsing a candidate ahead of elections 2011

liberian press By Own Correspondent – According to the Analyst newspaper ,one of the leading local newspaper in Liberia  Democracy, generically, is rule by an informed majority of a given country. Defined that way, democracy would not apply in Liberia because statistics have shown that one drawback of Liberia’s democratization is its more than 75% uninformed voting majority. Political pundits have argued that this critical majority lacks the basic ability to understand the intricacies of politics because of little education. Many say unscrupulous politicians are making hay and they are looking up to the media to take up the responsibility of creating an informed majority in order to make democracy relevant to Liberia’s reconstruction and recovery.

The question that now faces the nation is this: “Just how far the media must go in creating that critical majority – continues with the current shadowboxing at the helm of ethics while blaming everyone else for making the wrong decision, or brazenly lead the majority by endorsing political candidates to guide the critical majority?” The Analyst has been probing this question, which was generated by a media workshop on “effective election coverage” held in Monrovia last week.

Media executives in the country have begun a debate over whether to endorse presidential candidates as a way of providing informed alternatives for voters from the pool of disheveled mix of presidential contenders.

The debate

The debate was spontaneously sparked up between Daily Observer Managing Editor Kenneth Y. Best and Press Union of Liberia President Peter Quaqua during “The Importance of Providing Effective Coverage of the 2011 General and Presidential Elections” workshop, which  the Liberia Media Center held for journalists, last week, in Monrovia. Both men were making comments on the role of the media in the ensuing presidential elections.

Observers say the debate, which would have been dismissed as ordinary coming at a time other than the Liberian election year, has now become crucial to the national narratives about the roles of free, fair, and transparent elections; informed, independent voters; and the press.

It is not clear what prompted Mr. Best’s suggestion, but he told the workshop that the ensuing October 2011 and all subsequent political elections in Liberia would reflect the will of an informed voter majority were the media to endorse presidential and even legislative candidates.

He argued that once the process of endorsing such candidates was within the scope of media institutions,  it would endeavor to provide the necessary facts to help voters make informed choices. He dismissed counterargument that endorsing political candidates would violate the journalism ethics of neutrality and disinterest in political outcomes.

“I don’t have problem with the media endorsing a particular candidate during the elections, once it is done in line with fairness and the facts are also presented. It is not a violation at all. In America and other places around the world, the media do carry out this function”, the veteran Liberian journalist said.

He said endorsing political candidates was part of the sworn responsibilities of the media to inform and educate the general public on events transpiring within the country. But he said the media was under obligation to do this with due diligence, providing the necessary facts that would put voters in the right frame of mind to make the best choices.

“The press should be the one to inform the people on things that are happening in the country. The press should present the facts to the people. The press should cover every election, including municipal elections. The press should ask  the candidates more questions about their platforms, educational background, their track records, and experience and inform the  public on what is happening because this will accord the people the opportunity to make the right decisions”, he reiterated.

It may be recalled that The Daily Observer was the only news outlet in the country to endorse a candidate during the 2005 presidential elections.The endorsement was however criticized by media executives who thought that such process was not good for the country’s then fragile political environment.

That contention seems even more alive today as it was back in 2005, as no sooner had Mr. Best taken his seat than PUL President Peter Quaqua took to the podium to contradict him.Mr. Quaqua noted that while the veteran journalist’s idea was well put, it ran contrary to the true responsibility of the Liberian media as the nation endeavors to establish the culture of democracy and to reconcile its polarized people.

The media endorsing candidates as part of its social responsibility therefore, he said, would no doubt put the electoral process into what he called “total mess and chaos”.

He said this has nothing more to do with the media’s right to inform the people than it has to do with journalism ethics. Rather, he said, it has everything to do with the country’s already polarized ethnic and political landscapes and the influence money could exert in the process of candidate endorsement in a country where poverty seems the rule. Amongst other adverse effects money would impose on the process, he said, was the permanent tainting of the image of the media in a country where everything seems suspect.

“I agree that the idea propounded by Mr. Best is a good one, but I think we should leave that with the Americans and other people for now. If the media starts to endorse candidates now, politicians may infuse money into the process, and there will be total chaos around here. We don’t want to wake up one morning and hear newspapers endorsing candidates all around us. This will not be good for us because that will certainly confuse the electorates,” Mr. Quaqua said.

He did not say how endorsing candidates would “be total chaos and confuse the electorates” if the media proceeded, as Mr. Best said, with providing the facts and statistics, conducting interviews with candidates, and allowing the electorates to make informed decisions.

Observers across the media, political, diplomatic, and intellectual spectrums in the country have agreed that the issue needs further discussions perhaps to find a middle ground – a middle ground, they say, which would be used to help the Liberian electorates, the majority of whom stand to be even more confused about which of the 20 or so presidential candidates to choose in a country where ethnicity, relationship, and money often influence electoral choices.

“It is a serious dilemma. Leave the situation as is and still have money, ethnicity, and relationship determine the president for the next six years. Or allow the media to endorse candidates and have them risk their integrity or put them on collision course with winners who they did not endorse. But the issue is worth the whiles of the nation and media practitioners. Otherwise, it would be like a dog chasing its own tail. No ending,” said The Analyst’s Editorial Consultant, B. Ignatius George, I, who currently resides in the US.

Some Liberians however believe there is nothing to discuss further on the matter as it was clear cut that the media should not be in the business of endorsing candidates.

“I really don’t agree with Mr. Best’s argument because the electorates will be confused if media institutions were to begin endorsing a particular candidate,” said one political commentator who claimed that some media institutions in the country were already having image problems due to superficial, hearsay, and, oftentimes, false reporting.

“How can you possibly trust such institutions to endorse candidates and present so-called facts about them? Remember not all things presented as facts are really facts; and this is a country where many are gullible,” he said.

The image of the media may remain crucial to its endorsement process, but former Labor Minister, Cllr. Tiawon Gongloe, who also attended the workshop, said all Liberians have the right to participate in the elections one way or the other. Whether they also have the right to influence one another on ideological lines and electoral preferences, he did not say.

Credit: Analyst ,Liberia,4March,2011