THE United States of America’s ambassador to Lesotho, Matthew Harrington says the media has a fundamental role to play in ensuring peaceful and credible elections.
Ambassador Harrington said this while officially opening a three-day workshop on the role of the media in peaceful elections. The training, which ended yesterday, was held to sharpen journalists’ skills on election reporting ahead of the country’s 3 June elections.
The elections were announced by King Letsie III after the Pakalitha Mosisili-led seven parties’ coalition government lost a vote of no confidence to the opposition bloc in parliament on 1 March.
Ambassador Harrington said while a free and vibrant press was essential in any democratic society, journalists also had a fundamental obligation to get the story right, to be fair and to hold themselves to the highest professional standards.
Quoting the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, Ambassador Harrington said ethical and transparent media coverage was foundational to free and open societies and that it promoted accountability, sparked public debate.
“Societies built on good governance, strong civil society and an open and free media are more prosperous, stable and secure.
“At the end of the day, the more journalists do their jobs, the more confidence the public will have in them and their reporting, and the better informed the public will be,” Mr Harrington said.
He said as Lesotho approached the elections, the US Embassy in Maseru encouraged all parties to do all they could to ensure that the election process was peaceful and credible.
“We don’t support any particular party or candidate. Our only interest is that the will of the Basotho people be reflected in an election that peaceful, free and fair,” he said.
For his part, Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) commissioner Makase Nyapisi echoed Ambassador Harrington’s sentiments on the need for fairness and impartiality, adding media bias and polarisation could lead to post-election conflict and violence.
Commissioner Nyapisi said after the 2012 and 2015 elections, international and local observers indicated in their reports a concern about the polarising effect of the media in the electoral process, especially during campaigning, voting and post elections.
He gave an example of The SADC Electoral Advisory Council (SEAC) post electoral mission report which stated that “the stakeholders that the mission consulted were unanimous about the unprofessional nature of the media and that it was politicised and highly partisan. Instead of fostering nation-building, it was highly divisive”.
“The ECF-SADC said, ‘a major threat to Lesotho’s democracy is the unregulated and unprofessional media. Both the public media and private media in Lesotho have the potential to undermine the work of the public institute like IEC.
“The Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) said, ‘Many stakeholders including the media monitoring institutions expressed concern over the open partisanship of some media outlets, particularly radio stations, who used inflammatory language, which has the potential to trigger electoral violence,” Commissioner Nyapisi said.
He said it was on the basis of these reports that the IEC had requested the USA to provide training for journalists to enhance their knowledge and skills about their role in the electoral processes.
“During the training, I am sure you will be introduced to some of the concepts that are fundamental to the role of the media – accuracy, impartiality, honesty and avoidance of the use of language or sentiments that may promote conflict, violence or discrimination,” Dr Nyapisi said, adding that these concepts were more pertinent during the election period.
He said non-adherence to these fundamental principles may trigger pre and post electoral conflict and violence.
He said the media can be a powerful tool for instigating violence and conflict if not properly managed, as was the case during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.
During that genocide where more than a million, mostly Tutsi people were slaughtered mainly by the Hutu ethnic group, radio was used to manipulate the emotions of people into acts of violence.
Dr Nyapisi however, said the media can also be used as a powerful tool for peace building and conflict resolution, adding that media should and must play an active role in civic and voter education and as watchdog in ensuring that tensions, conflict and violence were minimised or eliminated.
“I humbly hope, wish and request that you use the knowledge and skills you will have acquired during these three days, positively to cement and enhance the spirit of love, hope, tolerance and harmony among and within all electoral stakeholders for the benefit of our beloved country,” Dr Nyapisi said.