By Amin Kef (Ranger)
The Independent Media Commission (IMC), the regulatory institution of the media in Sierra Leone, was one of the institutions that copiously observed and monitored not only the conduct of the June 24, 2023 multi-tier elections but more especially the way and manner in which various Media Houses were reporting election related activities.
According to the IMC, on elections day, media houses and practitioners were monitored throughout the country on their activities around polling centers, reporting of the voting process and general conduct during counting and announcement of provisional results from polling centers. Media coverage and reporting on polling day was assessed by the provisions of the IMC Elections Coverage and Reporting Regulations 2022.
In its report, the IMC stated that the electronic media conducted itself very well to promote democracy, peace, by encouraging voters to go out and cast their votes and how they could conduct themselves after voting and counting of ballots.
It furthered how all community radios and a host of independent radio stations across the country were tuned to the Independent Radio Network (IRN), relaying programmes from its studios in Freetown adding that the programmes relayed included reports from regional, districts, chiefdoms and constituencies correspondents who gave firsthand information on events around polling centers and the voting process generally across the country.
The IMC also reported that other radio stations broadcast their independent programmes of the voting process in line with set standards of reporting on elections day.
With special references to radio and television stations, the IMC said that the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), radio and television simulcast election special programme across their regional stations and their various reporters/correspondents in the field sent in reports on the polling process.
It also pointed out that the SLBC Regional Stations, from time to time, linked up local programmes in their respective regions and districts.
With regards the African Young Voices (AYV) television and radio stations, on polling day it broadcast their “Sierra Leone Decides” Programmes, which hosted elections management bodies, observer missions, civil society and the media. The AYV radio/television from time to time broadcast programmes update on the voting and tallying processes from the Electoral Commission.
For SLIK Television and Epic Radio it noted how they did simulcast programmes from their studios around the voting process and Star Television on the other hand only covered the polling process at the early hours of the voting process.
Classic Television in Bo and Karima Television in Kenema also aired programmes on polling day. Karima TV from time to time linked up live programmes from Freetown to bring their viewers closer to the voting process in the capital city.
The IMC revealed that its Situation Room observed that there was no newspaper publication on polling day, 24th June 2023, given the fact that it was a weekend.
Mentioning in its report, Media Coverage and Reporting on Post Elections the IMC divulged that at the initial period of post-elections, the media was largely focused on dissemination of provisional results from polling centers across the country.
The regulatory institution pointed out that the Independent Radio Network (IRN) members and non-member radio stations simulcast provisional elections results from reporters deployed across polling stations in different parts of the country.
It observed that coupled with Social Media misgivings through online platforms, some newspapers anticipated the outcome of the polling process, suggesting victory for various candidates across the political divide (APC & SLPP).
For the IMC, media houses/journalists to a large extent conducted themselves in a professional manner with the exception of Justice Radio FM98.5 which continued to flout the IMC Elections Regulations, even though sanctions were placed on their live phone-in programmes and a ban on the “Justice Breakfast Show”.
It said the SLBC and AYV Television and Radio Stations ,through simulcast, provided coverage of all elections related press conferences from elections management bodies including the Electoral Commission, Observer Missions, the media, civil society organizations and the Peace Commission.
With regards Live Phone-in Programmes, the Commission observed that to a large extent live phone-in programmes were managed on different electronic media platforms in such a way that they were not used to incite violence or public disorder.
It, however, that there were potential threats with Live Phone-in Programmes on three radio stations in the East End of Freetown namely Justice Radio FM 98.5, Tumac Radio FM 89.3 and Citizen Radio FM 103.7).
The IMC reported that they were suspended from all live phone-in programmes since a number of warnings were issued for proper management of said programmes.
It said the fact that those institutions lacked delay equipment to screen in-coming calls before putting callers on air the Commission resolved of suspension of their live phone-in broadcast.
In the estimation of the IMC,Media houses/journalists took necessary steps to provide adequate airtime to political parties and candidates across the political divide in all districts across the country. Community radios particularly, it continued, ensured proper allocation of airtime to political parties, especially the two leading political parties (SLPP & APC). It stated how in all districts, community radios allocated equal and free airtime to political parties as part of their public service responsibilities; but because some political parties considered themselves as being in minority in certain districts they did not use the allocated time slots on the radios for reasons best known to them.
In Bonthe and Koinadugu Districts the Commission encouraged opposition parties to use their allocated time slots on the community radios. It is however worthy to note that while the media was obliged to give free airtime/space to political parties and candidates as part of their public service responsibilities, they were also free to sell their prime airtimes/spaces to political parties or candidates on a fixed fee applicable to all political parties without discrimination.
Some newspapers allied themselves with political parties putting out stories and allocating more spaces to interest political parties; while majority of newspaper publications were balanced in their coverage and reporting of political parties’ activities.
- Actions taken by the Commission through its Rapid Response:
The Commission through its elections monitoring activities—situation room and deployment of five rapid response teams, took the following actions in line with the IMC Act 2020, Elections Coverage and Reporting and Print and Electronic Media Regulations 2022:
Firstly, the Commission requested the Board of Bintumani Radio 107.3 FM in Kabala to set aside the then Acting Station Manager pending investigations into an allegation that the said Ag. Manager was an active politician.
Secondly, following reports from managements of community radio stations that political parties and candidates were not making use of airtimes allocated to them, the Commission encouraged political parties at districts level to make full use of their assigned airtime to promote their political agenda.
Following persistence reports from media monitors against three radio stations in the Eastern part of Freetown, the Commission resolved after several warnings to suspend live phone-in programmes on Justice, Tumac and Citizen Radio Stations until further notice.
The Commission has to intervene during various radio programmes in order to correct anomalies made by both community and commercial media houses.
Conclusively, through its pro-activeness in training and popularizing its activities across the country the IMC was able, to a large extent, to positively contribute towards the enhancement of peaceful and professional media coverage and reporting of the June 24, 2023 multitier elections.