The Media’s Role in Strengthening Liberia’s Fledgling Democracy
If there is one professional group which has the power and perch to shape and shift the ways our country is governed and transitioned, it is those within the media.
Journalists, crossing the broadcast, print, social media and development spectrums must set the tone for governance in our new democracy. It is not enough to tell the stories about what is occurring in the society devoid of contexts, background, and solutions.
Media practitioners have their own sets of leadership responsibilities in shaping and strengthening the democracy from which some have shied away or practiced the craft frivolously. This is not to lump the entire group into one category. There are those who have record of stellar performance and integrity.
The responsibility to verify stories that the media carries from diverse sources and to present views objectively lie at the root of journalism. A transparent and accountable society will emerge when our media practitioners are practicing their craft with heightened professionalism.
The democratic aspirations of Liberians lay not only in the hands of those in the public and private sectors, but also in the hands of the civil society, in particular, the media.
The quality of media work products must be completed capably. When new stories are poorly edited, replete with errors or broadcasters are unable to complete a full sentence without choking on words, and taking bribes is the norm; the urgency of serious soul searching in the sector has been established. Liberia’s democratization process hinges a great deal on the quality of its Fourth Estate.
Now that the media landscape has been liberalized, journalists must take the utmost advantage of this unique opportunity. Media ethics must be taught and enforced stringently in every newsroom and within the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) alongside its affiliate organizations.
Violators should be punished without exception. Over time, I have seen the quality of our national debate be characterized by shady, sensational, and shallow stories, which have compromised the media’s watchdog function.
In these instances, the public interest has not been protected and our fledgling democracy has suffered stunted development at the hands of selected media practitioners.
It is true that the media is still hobbled by occasional cases of intimidation and control by state apparatuses, but its greatest threat to viability might be itself. When media practitioners allow themselves to proxy for different conflicting sides, it sows the seeds of distrust.
Once the public trust of the media erodes, it loses its capacity to foster the openness that citizens expect it to uphold. Periodic reviews of the different news organs have to then occur under the auspices of the PUL to enable stock taking. Ethical breaches will be identified and addressed remedied by either training, capacity building, or egregious violations punished and publicized as has have happened in recent times.
The kinds of reporting that have tended to expose variety of corrupt public figures in and out of government should not be shied away from even if there are dire consequences. Also, investigative stories on the effectiveness of specific policy decisions or the actual delivery of results by public officials need to be improved.
Yes while specialist journalism by sector is becoming normalized, depth of reporting for example on the legislature or the judiciary often do not reveal clearly how these institutions are serving the needs of their constituents.
Or when appointments are made in the executive, reporters do not always make it their duty to objectively vet the credentials professed by those appointed or their work record.
There is either under-reporting or over-reporting on an appointee depending on whether or not the media is caught in surrogate wars serving skewed interests. Playing proxy should not be mistaken for journalism. This is not to suggest that Liberia does not have deeply principled media practitioners and sector leaders. That is far from the case.
When the Ebola epidemic raged, the media helped to build awareness and even contributing to the mainstreaming of some of the local innovations that helped contain the outbreak.
As media professionals trained and understood how the disease was transmitted and/or prevented, they became the nation’s most potent allies with government and its partners in mobilizing the public to mount campaigns against the epidemic.
This important public service increased regards for and restored trust in the media on all sides of the political gamut. The lesson learned is that when the media familiarizes itself with the facts of specific events and joins in figuring out the basic technocratic solutions to existing problems, it wins itself an acclaim as the guardian of the public interest that is intended to be.
It is by pushing its own members to set these kinds of exemplary records that the PUL creates the moral platform from which to stand to hold others in the public square accountable.
As some in the Liberian public try to threaten the peace of the nation by making veiled threats, the media can publicize their actions to build awareness against any support for them by vulnerable populations.
The peace that Liberia enjoys cannot be attributed to politicians alone, but to civil society organizations, the media being foremost. Instead of fanning the flames of hate and discord, the media must be resolute in defending the social cohesion of the society. The media cannot grant voice to ethnic, religious, class, gender, and other forms of prejudice.
The media must report diverse views of its readers, but editorial judgment must be used in cases where people cross the redline aiming to sow seeds of discord. Liberia is a fragile failed state in recovery, and media practitioners and editors must always be mindful of the latent threat brewing beneath the surface.
For these reasons, the media has to build civic literacy amongst the citizens on those issues that require in depth study and reporting such as education, health, the economy, national security, and the functioning various state institutions among others.
It must peel away the different layers off the national narrative and not allow ideologues on either the left or the right to dominate the discourse. By taking the middle ground on issues, the media serves the needs of its core constituents – ordinary Liberians.
No other institution can heal the fractures that continue to cause Liberia great troubles than the media and perhaps the faith community. By performing its mediatory and watchdog roles concurrently, governance and public service will be improved and the path to democracy will become stronger.
Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D., Contributing Writer/[email protected]