Special Feature

Transitioning From War to Peace: Media and Elections

Researchers have put forth several suggested approaches towards strengthening democratization with direct conflict prevention and peace-building objectives and monitoring of elections.

The media is considered as important in ensuring that democracy operates properly. Discussion of the media’s functions usually focuses on their “watchdog” role by their scrutiny and discussion of the successes and failures of governments. The media can then inform the public of how effectively its representatives that is the government have performed and help to hold them to accountable. Yet the media can also play a more specific part in enabling full public participation in elections, not only by reporting on the performance of government, but also in a number of other ways, including, by educating the voters on how to exercise their democratic rights; by reporting on the development of the election campaign; by providing a platform for the political parties to communicate their message to the electorate; by allowing the parties to debate with each other; by reporting results and monitoring vote counting.

The media is not the only source of information for voters, but in a world dominated by mass communications, it is increasingly the media that determine the political agenda, especially in undeveloped countries torn by war. While some election observation teams in most instances comment upon media access and coverage of elections as a criterion for judging whether elections are fair, that was not the case in the July 1997 special elections held in Liberia.

The media reported the flaws and malpractices yet elections monitor teams particularly international monitors declared the elections free and fair and declared Charles Taylor one of the 13 political contenders winner. Charles Taylor ex-warlord was leader of the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia, (NPFL). (The News Newspaper, July 1997)

As leader of the NPFL, Taylor initiated the 1989 war through an insurgency against the late President Samuel K, Doe. The war lasted for eight years leaving over 250, 000 persons dead and several thousand person fled into neighboring countries as refugees. Taylor served as president from 1997 until he was force to go into exile in August 2003.

Three key issues were listed as essential yardstick to determine whether the 1997 Liberian elections had been fair and can be used to establish if any elections is free and fair. (Interview Woods, Kofi. 2003) They are the right of the voters to make a fully informed choice; the right of the candidates to put their policies across; the right of the media to report and express their views on matters of public interest.

Some of the right to freedom to make a fully informed choice and free expression are all aspects of the right to freedom of expression guaranteed in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and should apply at all times, not only during elections. (Woods 2003)

The environment for free operation of the media especially during an election period serves as a pointer for freedom of expression in general which is itself an essential precondition for functioning democracy. Conversely, an election can be an ideal opportunity to educate both the authorities in their obligation to respect and nurture media freedom and the media in their responsibility to support the democratic process.

Bodies of law, both at the national and international level, govern the role of the media in elections. The fundamental principles set out in international law embrace two aspects: the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information; the right to participate in the government of the country, through elections

In their original form these fundamental rights are set out in Article 19 and Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. They are echoed in a number of UN and regional human rights treaties adopted since then. Decisions of the various treaty bodies, such as the UN Human Rights Committee, the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, have further refined these principles making them an increasingly rich and applicable source of legal guidance.

Article 15 of the Liberian Constitution guarantees fundamental freedoms, among them freedom of speech and press freedom. Specifically, article 15 says,”Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof. This right shall not be curtailed, restricted or enjoined by government save during an emergency declared in accordance with this Constitution.”

“The right,” according to article 15(b) of the Liberian Constitution, “encompasses the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to knowledge. It includes freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom to receive and impart knowledge and information and the right of libraries to make such knowledge available. It includes non-interference with the use of the mail, telephone and telegraph. It likewise includes the right to remain silent.” (Liberia Constitution 2003)

One of the most salient provisions in the constitution regarding press freedom is found in article 15 c. It says, “In pursuance of this right, there shall be no limitation on the public right to be informed about the government and its functionaries.” Notwithstanding these provisions enshrined in the Liberian constitution, over the years, the principles of free expression and freedom of the press is yet to be entrenched in the Liberian society.

Media Environment

Contrary to the 1997 Liberian elections, the presence of the United Nations peacekeepers in Sierra Leone provided the needed environment for journalists to operate freely. Moreover, the availability of Television stations was only in a few communities in Monrovia whereas in Sierra Leone Television may not be wide spread but more available. In additions, the prevailing crises in Liberia heightened the already stringent economic situation leaving over ten persons in the capital, Monrovia to one newspaper.

Economic development in turn may influence the ownership structure of the media, as is already the case in Liberia. As is generally the case, poorer countries like Liberia and most countries in Africa, will tend to have a larger governmental media sector, because of the shortage of advertising. Independent media in Liberia are mostly owned by small, private business interests or secretly funded by government while in Sierra Leone; most media outlets receive donor support. (Interview. Baryoh 2003)

It is also known that wealth is not the only factor determining the structure of media ownership. Political and cultural traditions play a large part. Most European countries, for example, have a tradition of state or public ownership of broadcasting. It is evident that the extent to which the government or public authorities are involved in owning or controlling the media is likely to have a direct impact on the role of the media in elections.

Liberia has such structure, which was also interrupted by the war. During the war, Charles Taylor rebels looted almost all public, state and private broadcasting institutions and used that equipment to establish his media empire, the Liberia Communication Network, (LCN). LCN comprise a television station, a newspaper, a short wave and fleet of FM stations. In addition to muzzling the press and free expression, the LCN served as war propaganda machinery during the war, at the time of elections and during his administration where only his media empire – radio, newspaper and journalists had access to the rural parts of Liberia.

Voter Education

Voter education is an important element in developing an environment within which free and fair elections may take place. Although this is more demanding for established democracies, it is also important in emerging democracies. Perhaps had Liberia had a thorough voters education in an environment free of intimidation like Sierra Leone, citizens would have been motivated and prepared to vote their conscience.

Voter Education is not only geared at motivating voters, it’s also addresses information about voting and the electoral process and basic human rights and voting rights; the role, responsibilities, and rights of voters; the relationship between elections and democracy and the conditions necessary for democratic elections; secrecy of the ballot; why each vote is important and its impact on public accountability; and how votes translate into seats. Such concepts involve explanation, not just a statement of facts.

Law or Regulations on Media during Elections

Liberia, like many other countries has little concentration in the constitution to govern the action of the media during elections. In its statue of elections, there are some measures of special media regulation during an election as being part of the process of “leveling the playing field”. Still some other countries are somehow in the middle, with a system of voluntary self-regulation, whereby the media agree to adopt a series of self-limiting regulations because of the special demands of an election period. (Gongloe 2003)

Even in democracies that have been in existence over long periods, there are different views on how far the media should be subjected to formal regulation in election periods. It was clear during the 2001 elections that United States tradition is one of minimal regulation. The European tends more towards the establishment of enforceable rules. It is possible that the reason for the difference is that Europe, unlike the United States, has a history of state involvement in domestic broadcasting. The implication of this by the Europeans is to ensure that the broadcast medium be used to reflect the views of the different candidates and not favor the ruling party. (European Union –elections)

The Liberia policy is somehow similar to that of the European policy. Liberia has a state broadcasting institution, the Liberia Broadcasting System, (LBS) dates back to 1959. The station operated a television station, ELTV. It operated a short wave and FM. LBS was adequately equipped prior to the war was one of the stations looted during the war by Charles Taylor’s rebels National Patriotic Front of Liberia. LBS is funded by the government. Although set up to serve as a state institution, medium of channel of communication for both the government and citizens from all backgrounds, incumbent governments over the years have regulated the station programs and used it to propagate their views. However, the existence of President Charles Taylor’s personal media empire, LCN has undermined the function, funding and support of LBS. During his administration, the station did not receive government funding or support and as a result presently broadcast only within a small community of its location in Monrovia.

While in some nations including Sierra Leone many privately owned media exist with the belief of ensuring that the full spectrum of political views are heard, whatever the differing political culture as regards media regulation, it should be acknowledged that the media have a vital role to play in communicating information to the electorate. This makes it rather surprising that so few electoral laws deal to any great extent with the media. “The absence of formal statutes or regulations might indicate a mature media environment in which there is a free interchange of political ideas in the press and over the airwaves and where every party has fair access to the media to get its ideas across. Or it might not.” (Wesseh, Medina 2003)

Zimbabwean electoral law, for example, makes no mention of the media at all. In every election in the country’s history the state has had a monopoly of broadcasting and for most of that time a monopoly of the daily newspapers too. The absence of any specific regulation of the media in elections, far from “leveling the playing field”, has allowed the government to “move the goal posts”. For example, the refusal of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) to run opposition advertisements during a referendum in February 2000 prompted the opposition to seek a High Court order against the broadcaster. They succeeded in doing so, but arguably it should not have been necessary. In subsequent parliamentary elections the ZBC decided not to run political advertising at all – until election day when it broadcast advertisements for the ruling party, too late for other parties to respond. Under election law (though not possibly under Zimbabwean broadcasting law) the ZBC was entitled to do this. (IFES Elections Guide. 2000)

In situations where large sections of the media are either publicly owned or under the control of one particular political interest group then it probably makes sense for the law to set out some basic rules for election coverage. These will often differ in their provisions for public and privately owned media. (Sorokobi ,Yves. 2003). The areas that the law may cover should include the following: how time or space will be allocated to candidates and political parties; whether political advertising is to be permitted; what duty the media the media have to carry voter education material

Policies on “hate speech” and defamation

In both Sierra Leone and Liberia, policies on hate speech are almost non-existent even though International standards on the issue of “hate speech” are determined by a balance of Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights -Office of High Commission for Human Rights. The former guarantees the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers.

Article 19 then outlines possible restrictions to this right, including “for respect of the rights or reputations of others”. Article 20 states: Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law. It also states: Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

The law or regulations will probably create a statutory body with responsibility for oversight of the media during election, or will assign that responsibility to some existing body. In Liberia, it is not possible to assign such responsibility to the electoral commission since its members are appointed by the government but a neutral body. (see International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights )

If a complete law is in place governing specific aspects of media coverage of elections, then the operations of the electoral administration will be greatly facilitated as the campaign period approaches. (ACE: Media and Elections)

The law will also guard against the likelihood of governments use used of the state broadcast media and other public and private institutions to manipulate public opinion. During the 1985 elections in Liberia the late President Samuel K. Doe was determined to remain in power used the media to influence public opinion.

Unless such leaders are checked by a vigilant press, by effective protests from opposition parties, pressure groups, or by other social and religious leaders, they will use their governmental prerogatives to carry out appeal for public favor. This is what took place during the 1985 elections. In 1997, Charles Taylor not only intimidated voters but also used his media empire to manipulate public opinion as well as wealth he had acquired to buy votes and influenced the elections results.

First, there are many possible abuses of public broadcasting, if the executives who run the television and radio stations are in the pockets of the government, time allocated to parties for election broadcasts will usually be relatively insignificant when compared with total broadcasting output. How news reports are compiled and presented is even more important. Public opinion was affected by discussion programs in the Liberia elections which was not the same in Sierra Leone.

Secondly, the government may abuse its authority by using government information services to present partisan propaganda under the guise of objective public information, which has been the practice in Liberia by various governments.

Third, where there is a threat of violence and intimidation, the existence of fair campaign laws and efficient electoral administration will be undermined.

Examples of Government Manipulation of the Airwaves in other countries:

Malaysia, 1982 elections: The news programs on television were filled with ministers opening schools, temples, bridges, roads, and virtually anything else that could be opened during the weeks before the election. (H. Crouch, 1982)

Mexico, 1994. The National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) accused the networks of biased coverage in favor of the PRI. They especially criticized Televisa, a network watched by 80 percent of the Mexican television viewers. In July 1994, Televisa ignored one of the biggest PRD rallies of the campaign, while it spent twenty-two minutes of air time on now-President Ernesto Zedillo. PRD has called Televisa “one of the pillars that sustains the authoritarian regime.”

A study done by the Mexican Academy of Human Rights on news coverage by the air program’s 24 Horas … of the Televisa network and Hechos … of the Azteca Television Network, from January to April 1994 found that the PRI had a 3.1 advantage in total air time compared with PAN and PRD, which were the two strongest opposition parties.

The conclusion that emerges from these and many other examples is that a fair political system requires attention to broader questions of the professionalism of the media and of the need to guard the independence of the media from the government of the day. It is not enough for political leaders and foreign election observers to focus their attention on the allocation of time for free broadcasts by the rival parties during the limited period before the poll.

As in Mexico, a system of monitoring the output of the broadcast media by academic or human rights groups may be helpful in drawing attention to any bias.

A checklist of items relevant to fair political coverage should include, beside the allocation of time for party election broadcasts: allocation of broadcasting time to political parties between elections; measures to assure fairness in news coverage and in current affairs programs; arrangements for televised debates between rival party leaders during election campaigns


Several conclusions can be drawn from this article. The media have a twofold potential for contributing to peace building and stable democratization: Indirectly and Directly  The media can indirectly contribute to peace building and democratization just by fulfilling their basic professional and ethics criteria (non-partisan, balanced information, accountability, not government controlled, standard code of ethics) can contribute to peace building.

In its direct activities, the media with special peace and conflict related programs can additionally contribute to peace building. This can be achieved only if the media is seen as credible and not seen as a propaganda mechanism.

This article also puts forth the need for governments, politicians and civil society to move away from the notion that media are “destructive” to a perception that supports and develops the media as an integral aspect or agents of the wider civil society that are vital for peace building, and opened and competitive elections and stable democratization process.

Author’s Note:
This is the last part of this article. Part I Transitioning from War to Peace: The Anatomy of Conflict, and Part ll Transitioning from Crisis to Peace: Media and Peace Building were published recently.

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