Thursday, September 29, 2011

Liberia Elections 2011 : “Because Accountability Matters”

"Because Accountability Matters" is the outcome of the media monitoring component of the "Strengthened Media for Transparent Elections" project. The overall objective of the project is to support independent media coverage of the 2011 Elections. It further seeks to initiate new directions for the Liberian media in the coverage of the electoral and political processes that accord higher priority to electoral accountability, issue focused campaigns and application of ethical principles. It is being facilitated with capacity building initiatives and advocacy on electoral accountability, issue-focused election reporting and monitoring of electoral coverage by the media. It also includes the use of ICTs (new media technologies especially) in monitoring and reporting of elections. The project has also enabled LMC to provide equipment support for more than 300 Liberian journalists and about 35 community radio stations.

"Strengthened Media for Transparent Elections" was conceived against the background of the social responsibility and watch dog functions of the media through which it is expected to entrench the ideals of openness and accountability in the political and electioneering processes.
The program is jointly supported by USAID, through a grant to IREX USA; UNESCO; Denmark based International Media Support and the Africa Elections Project in Accra, Ghana.
The report aims to highlight media performance in the coverage of news, events and debates during the 2011 Liberian Elections. It is designed to stimulate performance and to provide a platform for debate on the findings.

This publication therefore encapsulates one month of monitoring in August 2011 and provides summaries of areas requiring improvement by various media outlets. The report represents the first in a series, which continues till December 2011 and would culminate into the production of a comprehensive documentation on the media role during the 2011 electoral cycle.

LMC hopes the assessment will achieve the intended purpose of encouraging the media to provide appropriate professional response and add value to collective efforts for free, fair and transparent elections devoid of violence. The report is however based on the monitoring of the radio and newspapers during the period. The second report to be release in October will feature television monitoring results.


While the project reviews all published dailies to document incidents of ethical transgression, only 11 newspapers and seven radio stations are closely monitored using sets of pre-set questionnaire or coding sheets. This report covers these institutions though reference is also made to some institutions outside the rigorous assessment process, especially as it pertains to grave ethical transgressions.
The newspapers were selected on the basis of their regularity prior to the monitoring.  As a result, most of the papers selected are dailies. Seven radio stations were selected on the basis of their programming, reach, and relative consistency on the air.

For radio, a total of 63 hours of radio time were recorded and evaluated, using a code frame that contained 141 semi-structured questions for radio and 154 semi-structured questions for newspaper. The report focused on a number of indicators ranging from coverage of issues, parties and candidates, space and airtime distribution and distribution of advertisement. A reflection of the coverage across the various county and sources that generated the news was also assessed. Media biases, content quality, partisan reporting, gender and conflict sensitive reporting were amongst the indicators assessed.

Processing of the data begins with monitors, who report their daily code frames to a supervisor, who in turn forward his report to the Project Consultant. The Consultant verifies the coding of each newspaper and radio station before the data is entered in the computer –based data processing system. The computer generated results are then placed within an analysis chart and quantitative reports are generated together with qualitative analysis generated separately by monitors.

The Chart below shows the percentage of issues that were reported as news by the radio stations during the period

In general, the outcome of the monitoring exercise indicates the Liberian media's robust engagement with the electoral processes as citizens prepare for the first election to be conducted by post-war democratically elected government.

A major indication of this was the amount of space and time allotted by the newspapers and radio stations to the coverage of the pre-election referendum that was then pending. Although, it meant that other developmental issues were relegated to the background, it nonetheless showed that the media was paying a deserved attention to a process whose outcome might have significant effect on the actual elections. In this regard, the court actions that have followed the result of the referendum could be seen as vindicating the stance of the media on this particular issue.

The result also shows that during the period under review, the media focused on the National Electoral Commission (NEC), being the all-important umpire whose deeds or misdeeds could have profound effect on the credibility of the elections. Understandably, NEC featured very well in the referendum related stories as it was also its responsibility to conduct it. In all instances during the monitoring exercise, NEC and the referendum got prominent mention in terms of placement of the stories. For example, in the case of the newspapers, 48% of elections related stories dealing with the activities of NEC and the referendum appeared as front page lead or sub leads. Among the highlighted issues in the stories were the registration process, opinions of the political parties and candidates whether the referendum was desirable or not with some actually advocating the boycott of the process.

Similarly, 36.1% of the 129 monitored programs of the radio stations centered on the referendum. These were in the form of open discussions of issues relating to the referendum such as the sensitization campaigns and the views of the opposition political parties. The observed weakness is the poor attention to gender in the referendum and election related stories as only two stations, UNMIL and Truth FM, featured gender related debates.

More welcoming however is the prominent featuring of news from the campaign rallies (20%) and news specific to the political parties (15.6%) by the radio stations which would suggest on face value, that the radio stations intended to help the electorates with the information that could aid their choice of Parties and candidates. Unfortunately, this intent might not have been fully realized as the news and programs were poor in content when it comes to the agenda and policies of the political parties. It should be worrisome that less than 2% of the issues covered dealt with health, business and development policies.

The monitoring report also indicates that the radio stations have succeeded more than the newspapers, in engendering public participation in the political discourse. Many callers and participants in various radio programs have been quite vocal and eloquent on questioning candidates on the issues of concern to them. Overall, the coverage of issues by the broadcast media was much better as influenced by the audience contribution. Although the newspapers do not have such advantage, the creative use of the new and social media could be a way of increasing their engagement with the public on the electioneering.

Another noticeable feature of the report is the skewed coverage of the political parties with the data gathered from the monitoring period showing that the newspapers generally seem to build stories around four of the over twenty nine registered political parties contending for power.  If this trend continues, the underreported parties might allege that they are being marginalized by the media.  The four parties that have been given favorable coverage are the ruling Unity Party, the CDC, the LP and NDC. Meanwhile the nature of the stories reported by the media on the leading parties also raises some questions. For example, whereas over 50% of the news stories on CDC centered on internal political wrangling especially as emanating from the party's convention, the ruling Unity Party received more favorable coverage of its progress, programs, events and activities.

For a country divided into counties populated by diverse peoples, attention to diversity is an important focus of the monitoring exercise. Here the newspapers did not put up an impressive performance to the extent that about 86% of newspapers election related stories originated from Montserrado. In contrast, Nimba County with almost half a million people out of the 3.5 million Liberian population had less than 7% mention. Other Counties even fared worse.

The newspapers might feel justified not only because they are based in Monrovia, the capital but also because the Montserrado as a whole county has the largest population compared with others. But the newspapers should have put into consideration that fact that the forthcoming elections are national in character; across all the counties, the president, the senators and the representatives will be voted for and elected.

Overall, the radio reports fared only marginally better than the newspapers as they too had 83.6% of stories coming from Montserrado, the seat of government. Bong and Nimba Counties followed with 2.8% and 2.5% respectively. However the radio stations covered more counties. ELBC reports covered nine of the fifteen counties; Truth FM, eight; UNMIL Radio, seven; LWDR, four and Radio Veritas, SKY FM and LUX FM three counties each.

The diversity performance was better in giving space and voice to non-political actors whose objective opinions help in shaping issue-focused campaigns. Both the newspapers and radio stations featured significantly the civil society, foreign missions and youth as well as women groups.
The effect of advertising on the reporting of the elections was another area of importance examined by the monitoring to determine if it accounted for favorable and non-favorable coverage of the political parties. UP had 88% of political party adverts in "The News" newspaper and received favorable coverage with a story on the president's presence at a campaign rally sensationally titled "Ellen Rocks" in the August 8 edition. CDC did not have ads in the newspaper. On July 28 it ran a story titled "Tubman a failed UN Diplomat" that was more opinionated than factual.

Finally, on a more positive note, the fact of government ownership seems not to have affected ELBC during the period in question. It had more balanced stories than the private stations. Forty two of its 65 elections news stories fell into the balanced category whereas the privately owned Sky FM had 19; Radio Veritas, 17; Truth FM, 15; LWDR, 6 and Lux FM, 7. UNMIL had just two balanced election news stories, with no balanced reports as most of their stories were not applicable.


As seen from the findings, the media faces huge challenges running into a crucial two weeks period especially on account of recent performance from some media organizations. The temptation to report issues along partisan lines will also exist but mustering the professional will and judgment to resist these temptations and stay above the fray will contribute immensely in determining the peaceful outcome of the electoral process. To achieve this goal, journalists must remain non-partisan even if they are in the employ of media owners with partisan agenda. Ensuring that news and information dissemination remain conflict sensitive is an obligation not an option and journalists should be reminded that this obligation is inextricably linked with a violent free and peaceful elections. As polling day looms, the media is encouraged to provide a balanced perspective on the candidates' platform, track record and performance. Giving equal space and airtime in a commercially driven period can be challenging but media owners should seek to promote diversity and undue monopolization of their outlet by any single political party.  The media must unite to promote peace through reporting the process in an unbiased and transparent manner.

Supported by USAID through IREX, UNESCO and International Media Support.

International Institute for ICT Journalism

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