Why the Sierra Leone Press Coverage of the Elections Risks Voter Apathy

Abdulai Mansaray, author
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that “democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”. With the forthcoming general elections drawing closer, such an assertion could not be more appropriate. The press, the fourth estate has, since time immemorial been charged with the responsibility to educate, entertain and inform the electorate. With the coverage of the elections and all the attendant innuendoes reaching a crescendo, it is obvious that pro-political party newspapers are feverishly working overtime; all in a bid to get our votes. A vote is “the only commodity that is you can peddle without a license” (M. Twain).

Judging by the kind of coverage that we have come to be drip fed on, it is apparent that anti-intellectualism is fast becoming the currency and a constant thread that is winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘ my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.  The kind of atmosphere that is currently generated makes one feel that “democracy is a five –minute conversation with the average voter”. As the two main political parties in our country try to strangle each other, courtesy of their respective media sympathisers, you will be forgiven to think that the November elections is all about “voting for the lesser of two evils” which by implication is still voting for evil. If this is the trend that our “respected” media outlets are embarking on, the NEC might as well include a space for “Lucifer” on the ballot box. The kind of language expressed against opponents, the allegations, insults, and doomsday merchandising have all become the tools of the character dismantlers. For God’s sake, let’s talk issues.

Most of the political sections in our news media can be mistaken for  literary cesspits, because some writers, journalists and literary griots seem to run out of information or topics that are worthy of note. It is apparent that having run out of ideas to get our votes, most news outlets have resorted to rehashing, recycling and re-inventing their stories, with a tweak here and there to give us a semblance of novelty. This has gone on for so long that the phrase, “flogging a dead horse” is redundant.  Do these writers consider us voters so thick that we have to hear a point twelve times before it registers? In the absence of substance, some have decided to employ the use of expletives, character assassinations and downright dishonesty to fill up reams and reams of paper, at the expense of issues. Words like sycophant, mass murderer, lair, idiot, etc have become the local parlance.

With such a daily occurrence, you are left to wonder what these journalists take us for.  In their eyes, do they see us as ignorant? If so, do they know that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all?  We know that political propaganda is the wine with which political minds can be lubricated; but conversely, it is the same propaganda that tends to increase the feeling of insignificance of the individual voter. When people resort to personality attacks instead of issues, it is obvious that they have lost the argument; and with it the plot as well. It is personalities that generate issues, and in some cases, discussing personalities can be unavoidable. But when the main thrust of the argument is centred on the individual only, then you wonder whether such newsprints are worthy of the time and effort.

As voters, we exercise a public trust, and if we are to exercise such a trust, we need all the information and “enlightenment” we can get to make informed decisions about our leaders. Voting is a right best exercised by people who have taken time to learn about the issues. One of the best placed channels for us to get such information lies in the hands of the media, among others. The least that voters expect in return for this responsibility is facts and not the political jaywalking and professional moonlighting.  Some will say that it is idealistic and utopian, but the office of the president of any nation represents the inner soul of the people. As so, it must be treated as such, and not like some piece of toy to be played with by some rag tag newspapers. The importance of deciding on who leads us into the next five years should not be simplified or determined by the mindset of personality issues. And to reduce it to a trade fair of insults and personality attacks is not only a dereliction of duty, but an insult to the intelligence of the electorate.

Generations all over the world feel burned by broken promises. Cries for leadership mean that voters want to be treated as individuals and not like products to be used up and discarded until another five years. With voters becoming more and more important in the democratic process, let’s give them their rightful place; because you know that you are important when a politician can recognise you from over the road. We can relate education to participation, and the more educated (informed) a voter is, we can safely assume, the more informed the individual’s vote will be. If this trend of our press trading abuse on the political stock exchange is to continue, there is a risk that voters will lose faith in the democratic principle that underpin the whole ethos. And when that happens, voters may no longer feel the need to participate; a recipe for voter apathy. Not a chance I hear you say. How then can a nation claim to be democratic when only a small percentage bothers to vote? Improved voter turnout can only give parliament and government the appearance of being legitimate; at least. If we want to make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers. By participating, it gives us the right to complain, because the future of the country is in the hands of the voter. The chances of voter apathy in Sierra Leone are less than nil, we know.

Voters are already constipated with political promises, which are much like marriage vows. They are made at the beginning of the relationship between the candidate and the voter, but are quickly forgotten. The candidates will talk about the wonderful things they can accomplish, as if achieving them is the same as advocating them.  It is obvious that most voters already have their candidates chosen; from birth. It will be difficult to influence even an undecided voter via newsprint, as some vote by various colours of persuasion. People like me can be intellectually bankrupt, and as such depend largely on the political fodder that these newspapers dish out for our daily feed. Others that may already be suffering from voter apathy may need some political resuscitation, while some may need a transplant.

As the political propaganda horse trading heats up, so does the infighting, the blackmail and character assassinations. The social forums are fast becoming the platforms for political discussions. One prominent one on facebook is the “Open Forum for the future Economic and Social Development in Sierra Leone”. Judging by the kind of discussions held on this forum, you could bet your bottom dollar that the kind of topics discussed nowadays are far from the founders envisaged. These newfound political arenas have taken some politically gladiatorial proportions beyond belief; as members and sympathisers of the respective parties slug it out on a minute by minute basis.

The unfortunate side of it all is that much of what is being discussed centre on personal attacks. The current trending issue on this forum is about Patrick Mauna, a supporter and stalwart of the opposition party SLPP.  Much of what is being discussed is about whether he is still employed or sacked by a University in the US. Do voters give a hoot about the character of their political advisors? Yes they may; if that character reflects on the candidates. But I wonder what such an issue has to do with the price of a bag of rice in Sierra Leone, or the high cost of import duty at the Queen Elizabeth 11 Quay.  Tell me about the impact of the development of the infrastructure on the lives of the people, or about when the Kono-Masingbi Road will be rebuilt; perhaps we can start talking. It’s a matter of priorities, which like opinions are individual.

No one is opposing the art of opposition; for an intelligent and conscientious opposition is a part of loyalty to one’s country. Sometimes, greatness is not measured by what has been accomplished, but by the level of opposition that has been overcome to reach the desired goals. How such oppositions are overcome may go a long way in defining the character of the individual.  Aggression, whether physical, verbal, literal or psychological can be inherently destructive of relationships. It can entertain the belief that when ideologies and people are pitted against each order, they must destroy the opposition in order to survive. Such an idea cannot be good for the country; as symbiotic existence is needed for the benefit of all.

In spite of the above, people should not be afraid to offer ideas that generate opposition; for if one’s idea does not draw opposition, then it probably doesn’t do anything. The tendency to encounter violent opposition from mediocre minds is always present (Einstein). However, the current trend that is being peddled in both the social and mainstream media now leaves little to be desired. If we were to use such discussions as a reflection of and yardstick to gauge the country’s political maturity would anyone be brave enough to say that we have politically evolved?  Opposition should not be seen as a tool to enflame the enthusiast. It should be seen as a necessary ingredient in maintaining some balance of power.

Unlike the mainstream media, social media is owned by us all. It can be a great place to meet, where we can educate, entertain and inform one another; but above all have fun. It will bid well for our country and its people if we can show the level of maturity, tolerance and understanding.  This does not necessarily mean that all that goes on in these forums are thrash; far from it. Most of the threads start with very topical and pertinent issues about our country.  Ironically, since speech is free, most of these discussions are usually hijacked and lumped into cul de sacs of personality attacks. The mainstream media may suffer from its split loyalty to its readers and paymasters, but the social media does not suffer from such a luxury. It will be nice to visit these sites and come out smiling; safe in the knowledge that one has not only learnt something new but also the extent of our ignorance. So it is up to us all to make it our own and to take up the challenge.

As we prepare for these elections, we hope that the press will give us enough to discuss and talk about.  It is a different time and a different generation, and young people need to look at the candidates’ philosophy.  As we go to the polls, the electorate is going to be thrust into a world of political make-believe. One thing I know for sure is that while “some candidates will use their careers to promote change, and others will use change to promote their careers: Take your pick.

 I always wanted to vote for the best, but he’s never a candidate.


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