SLAJ Meets With ECSL Boss & Discussed Pertinent Electoral Issues

SLAJ Meets With ECSL Boss & Discussed Pertinent Electoral Issues
SLAJ Meets With ECSL Boss & Discussed Pertinent Electoral Issues

Africa-Press – Sierra-Leone. By Abubakarr Harding

The Executive of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) paid a courtesy call on the Electoral Commission-Sierra Leone on Tuesday 27th September at the Commission’s Tower Hill office, Freetown.

President of SLAJ, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, thanked the EC-SL Chairman, Mohamed K. Konneh, for accepting his request for a courtesy call. He recalled that just after he was appointed Chairman of the EC-SL, Konneh and his team paid a courtesy call on SLAJ as one of its key partners to understand what has been their experience working with the Commission on previous elections and to seek further cooperation.

President Nasralla said the courtesy call by SLAJ is to continue the engagement and to strengthen the relationship between the two bodies going into the public elections in June 2023. He said part of the relationship has been such that the Chairperson of the SLAJ Electoral Commission (SLAJEC) has always been the emissary of the Association to the EC-SL (formerly NEC).

Highlighting the critical role of the media in the electioneering process, Nasralla said there is a need for the SLAJ and EC-SL to have a memorandum of understanding on matters of access to the activities of the Commission and information sharing so that the media plays its rightful role of bringing the correct information about the elections to the people.

For example, said Nasralla, during the process of nomination of political candidates there should be cooperation among EC-SL and its partners to ensure the process is orderly, transparent, and fair, and the media has unhindered access to cover everything.

“For the nomination of flagbearers of political parties, how do we ensure we work together to create adequate room for the media to cover the process without hindrance and disorder? The EC-SL can coordinate a meeting with the relevant partners, including the Sierra Leone Police and SLAJ, so we plan for this important activity as a team. We can allocate a specific space to the media to occupy, and a secluded area where the candidates will avail themselves after their nominations for interview by the collective media just as they do in football matches,” Nasralla suggested, adding that the same can be done for EC-SL press conferences with a much bigger space to accommodate more people.

The SLAJ President also mentioned the issue of accreditation to journalists and media houses, and the need for proper identification and for SLAJ to be involved in the planning and implementation.

Furthermore, Nasralla revealed that SLAJ with support from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), will operate a media center that will serve as a hub for various interventions during the elections, including countering disinformation and promoting information integrity through fact-checking and proactive disclosure of information relating to the elections.

“For the disinformation project to succeed we will need the cooperation of the EC-SL and its other partners,” said Nasralla.

Nasralla also informed the EC-SL Chairman about plans by the National Political Debates Committee (NPDC) to organize a presidential debate for the June 2023 public elections and for which the support of the Committee is hugely important.

“Building on the success and learning from the lessons of the 2018 presidential debate, the NPDC is working with partners to imbibe the culture of debate in our body politic as a means to encourage healthy dialogue among politicians and promote citizens’ participation in the democratic process,” said Nasralla.

He informed the EC-SL boss that this year’s presidential debate will be a three-tier debate with political parties grouped into three categories according to their strengths and weaknesses in meeting the requirements of a political party as prescribed by the regulations of the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC).

“In 2018 we had the challenge of assembling 17 political parties on one stage and so we devised a strategy of eliminating almost half of that number to the disappointment of those parties that were excluded. For the June 2023 elections, we want to give every registered political party the right to have a platform to talk to the people of Sierra Leone about their plans for the country,” explained Nasralla.

Nasralla reported that the June 2023 political debate will commence in October 2022 with NDI supporting three political debates featuring women, young people, and people living with disabilities (PWDS) in political parties.

“What the EC-SL can do now to support the process is to ensure that our choice of date/s for the presidential debates are free from any other political activity so that the candidates will all be available,” appealed Nasralla.

Finally, the SLAJ President urged the EC-SL to support initiatives for the safety and security of journalists during the elections period.

In response, the Chief Electoral Commissioner of EC-SL, Mohamed K. Konneh, assured SLAJ that the Commission is willing to work and cooperate with the Association to provide access to the media and journalists to the Commission and to work together to counter disinformation around the public elections 2023. He said that access to the Commission is the only way correct stories can be disseminated to the public and the world at large. The EC-SL, he said, has no limitation to granting access to the media and journalists for them to come and clarify issues.

“We will love to receive calls from journalists and the media houses on stories they might have read online or rumours for these stories to be clarified before going to press rather than just writing the story and sometimes we know media houses and journalists have this tactic of saying efforts to reach out for clarification proved futile,” said Mr. Konneh. “We understand some of these things but our responsibility is to bring out our own side of the story to clarify the issues.”

The Chief Electoral Commissioner said the only way to manage disinformation and fake news around the elections is for the EC-SL to be proactive in bringing out the correct information before it gets distorted. And where the Commission is not forthcoming with the information, he said it is the responsibility of partners to draw the EC-SL’s attention to some of the stories so that they will respond by putting out the correct story.

“We will be happy to be part of whatever committee that SLAJ will set up for disinformation management around the elections. I am happy about the setup of various committees because that’s one way we can address disinformation, if somebody is on the committee they will be able to clear any disinformation and it will come out whether it is factual or a false story,” Mr. Konneh said.

The EC-SL Chairman made reference to the recent elections in Kenya where one of the European partners gave support to the country’s Peacebuilding Commission. They set up a media web and recruited about 100 young people to monitor the national news on radios, newspapers, and social media and cross-check and fact-check with relevant authorities, and then simultaneously respond to disinformation and fake news.

“For example, in our own case, somebody during this voter registration took to social media claiming that they were registering underage children in Bonthe. These are some of the things we can easily react to if we have that Kenya type of system in place where the story is forwarded to us, we will cross-check with our team and then we come back and say this is a fake story or not. These are some of the simultaneous systems we have to put in place,” Konneh said, adding that the Commission is willing to work with SLAJ on developing the system and be part of it as well.

The Chief Electoral Commissioner further assured that the EC-SL will share with SLAJ their final calendar of electoral activities and they will also be pleased to have the Association onboard in the area relating to the media outreach or media information.

“We will even have a desk for SLAJ so that you too are part of the media outreach programme,” he suggested.

He recalled the elections of 2018, and what happened to journalists when security forces were arrested and beat some of them. He suggested that it is one of the reasons for the need for a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two institutions to have a system in place that will also protect the journalists as well as information sharing and management.

“In other words, if you are a journalist you will observe the elections and your role is limited to that; you do not become a political party agent by getting involved in the activities and challenging the authorities. So as we get this MoU, it will be good we know our various responsibilities. If you are committed to bringing out credible information you should have access but also that goes with some level of responsibility,” Mr. Konneh explained, adding that the MoU can be drafted, and both EC-SL and SLAJ agree on the content and date to sign the document.

On the issue of accreditation for journalists to cover the activities of the EC-SL, the Electoral Boss revealed that the Commission has developed an online accreditation portal which was tested during the recent by-elections. He said they want to adopt the online accreditation going forward.

“We are going to make it mandatory for institutions to use it. For example, if we agree that all media houses that want accreditation must go through SLAJ, then all applications will be going through SLAJ on their online platform, and when they are signed off by the SLAJ President they are sent to us for approval. When we approve we send them back to SLAJ and you will be responsible to send back to the various beneficiaries instead of this idea of preparing the card and somebody will come and write his/her name; we really want to avoid that, and that is one of the reasons we have established the accreditation portal,” Konneh explained.

He said once both parties agree, he would get his ICT team to train some SLAJ staff to make it easier for everybody. He further said the portal will create a database such that when someone commits an offence the person will be clearly identified along with his/her details and swiftly withdraw the accreditation as fast as possible.

“So the portal is one of the things we have developed and we want to make sure political parties are also part of the portal,” Mr. Konneh said.

On the planned presidential debate organized by the National Political Debates Committee (NPDC), he said the debate is of course part of EC-SL’s responsibility and always welcomes playing whatever role is required of the Commission to support the process.

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