Dr Kwadwo Afari-Djan, Chairman of the Electoral Commission (EC), yesterday urged journalists to get people interested in the up-coming general elections. He told a cross-section of journalists at a lecture in Accra that the poll was the only voice of most of the people in national affairs. The lecture was to kick-start the celebration of this year's World Press Freedom Day, which falls on May 3.
'This is a compelling reason to encourage and assist the people to participate in elections,' Dr Afari-Djan said, as he delivered the lecture titled; 'Press Freedom, Empowerment and Participation of the People in the Electoral Process.'
Dr Afari-Djan defined press freedom as the existence of conditions for journalists to practice their profession freely to such as extent that, within the law, every media establishment is free to determine the contents of what it prints, broadcasts or telecasts.
He said, such an environment could exist only if the government or some other authority did not control access to and the contents of the media, and if journalists had reasonable access to the information they needed for their work.
However, press freedom requires journalists to uphold the highest professional and ethical standards, to disseminate accurate information about matters of public importance and to refrain from inciting violence, setting one party or candidate or religious group or region against the another.
Dr Afari-Djan said authority to govern derived from the will of the people demonstrated through election on the basis of the universal and adult suffrage, exercised by means of a secret ballot. He said empowerment for participation in the electoral process begins with knowing one's electoral rights and certain amount of activism to achieve the rights.
'In this regard, in addition to people's own efforts, the media must defend their electoral rights against abuse by politicians. It must monitor the extent to which the generality of the people enjoy their rights by exposing, condemning, and shaming acts of violence, intimidation, and bribery.'
The EC Chairman observed that electoral reporting presented challenges of seeking adequate and right knowledge, the need for balance and being analytical in election reporting.
However, the tendency of officials of an incumbent government to turn state or government functions into election campaigns, and the tendency to induce journalist to give complimentary coverage in return for favours are two potential obstacles to achieving balance.
Dr Afari-Djan said the press should constantly urge qualified persons to seize the opportunity to register, give assurance to the electorate that they could vote in secrecy in accordance with their conscience, and that each valid vote would be counted as cast.
He said the press could also package specially crafted public messages to elicit maximum voter turnout.
Dr Afari-Djan said media empowerment of the people must translate into giving them education and information about politics and the electoral process designed to elicit maximum turn-out at the poll by an electorate who make informed choices at the ballot box.
He expressed disbelief that, 'current African governments want to empower the people for qualitative participation in the electoral process' but once a proper agenda had been set, institutions other than the press could be helpful in empowering the people.
'Civil society could play a role similar to that of the press by getting the substantive concerns of the society to the forefront of the political debate through discussions and seminars and by defending the rights of the people.
Dr Afari-Djan also observed that credible electoral systems and process, well-behaved stakeholders and an atmosphere of general peace in which people could freely go about their legitimate political activities were also needed to empower the people to participate in an electoral process.