By Fatoummatta K. Jallow

On Monday, 22nd August 2016, Media Agenda commenced a two day training workshop for journalists on the development of appropriate voter education messages at Tango conference hall in Fajara.

The overall objective, according to organisers, is to increase civic engagements, improve voter education and promote peaceful conduct of the upcoming national electoral cycle of presidential and parliamentary elections in The Gambia.

Speaking on the occasion, Mr. Kebba K. Barrow, Program Officer – Networking Tango, thanked the US Embassy for funding Media Agenda to undertake this project as another cycle of elections is forthcoming.

He said it is important for voters to be well sensitised in order for them to elect the right representatives.

In his opening statement, Mr. Marc Shaw, the  Charges d’ Affaires of the US Embassy in The Gambia, said they are happy to be partnering with Media Agenda for the second time in the year to build and enhance the capacity of Gambian journalists. “I believe this is an important first step to increase electoral awareness and strengthen The Gambia’s democratic space ahead of the December 1st presidential election,” said the US Charges d’Affaires.

Mr. Shaw said this message development workshop is a crucial element in the U.S. Mission’s overall election strategy for The Gambia.  “With elections rapidly approaching, we want to do all we can to promote a free, fair and transparent democratic process. The goals of this project are to expand civic empowerment and community engagement, improve voter education, and train broadcasters to be better journalists,” he said.

He noted that the two pillars of promoting democracy and respect for human rights have long served as the basis underpinning U.S. foreign policy, adding that President Barack Obama has underscored the importance of these principles in their engagement everywhere, including here in The Gambia.

“Elections provide crucial opportunities for citizens to hold their leaders and political parties accountable.  They give ordinary citizens a role in determining the future of their nations through peaceful political competition,” said the US diplomat.

The Charges d’ Affaires emphasized that in their diplomacy and assistance, the United States remains committed to supporting credible, transparent, and inclusive elections, encouraging respect for the political rules of the game and reducing the likelihood of violence during elections.

“Around the world and here in The Gambia, we call for the fundamental rights of political opponents to be fully and unconditionally respected, and for all political parties to freely conduct their campaign activities without obstacle,” said Mr. Shaw.

On United States support to the democratic processes, the Charges d’Affaires noted that this includes voter registration and civic education programs, building the capacity of election commissions, strengthening  political  parties, training officials and civil society election observers and ensuring that women, youth, and people with disabilities are included at all stages of the electoral process.

US representative said this training is very much consistent with their commitment to promoting democratic values.  “It is our strong conviction that an informed electorate will make informed decisions at the polls.  Experiences from other sub-Saharan African countries show that pervasive voter apathy was largely due to a Jack of necessary voter education. Too often, people lose interest in the democratic process because they feel their vote do not count, or because governments neglect civic education programs.  We don’t want to sec voter apathy take hold in The Gambia, and what better medium to create an enthusiastic and informed electorate than the broadcast media,” he noted.

The US Charges d’Affaires said no one can deny that media plays a vital part in the democratic process and that its role must be understood and nurtured to enable it to deliver on its core mandates of informing and educating, adding that message development is at the heart of these mandates.

“As elections approach, we also have the opportunity and responsibility to recognize the role of journalists,” he noted.

The US Charges d’Affaires told the journalists that they should investigate, research, publish and share news, information, and opinions on electoral manners without fear of reprisals, adding that governments are responsible for protecting journalists from physical harm and intimidation at all times, but more so during elections.

“As President Obama rightly once proclaimed, democracy is not just formal elections when journalists are put behind bars for doing their jobs, or activists are threatened as governments crack down on civil society then you may have democracy in name but not in substance,” said Mr. Shaw.

The US Charges d’Affaires told the journalists that “they also have a responsibility to their audiences and to the broader international community. They must adopt best practices in election coverage and reporting. The job of the reporter is to report the truth and nothing else!  Journalists must address issues objectively, factually, and responsibly.  That’s why as part of our election strategy, we are currently exploring avenues to provide more election-related training for Gambian journalists.”

He concluded that the US Embassy will continue to engage key actors, including the government and civil society for the widening of the democratic space and the continuous empowerment of the citizens.

Mr. Madi Ceesay, Director of Media Agenda, speaking earlier in his welcoming remark, thanked the US Embassy for providing the funds to enable Media Agenda carry out this workshop.

“It could be recalled that a similar workshop in December was sponsored by the US Embassy for 50 broadcast journalists who mainly came from community radios,” said Mr. Ceesay.

Director of Media Agenda said the Voter Education project for radio is in three phrases. “The first is a massage development workshop where sharp and powerful voter education messages will be developed, orientation workshops for radio journalists and three productions of audio cassettes/USBs for broadcast,” he said.

He said Voter education messages can provide motivation for participation in elections by citizens as they would learn how individual participation in elections establishes representative governments and ensures accountability by those who are elected.

“It is not enough, however, merely to concentrate on roles and responsibilities. Educators must also consider the rights to a free and fair election. Helping voters understand these rights facilitates election monitoring by all citizens and not just specialised groups. It ensures oversight of both candidates and the election administration,” noted the Media Agenda director.

Mr. Ceesay said the key messages like ‘your vote counts’ as important as voters need to be made aware that each individual vote has weight in determining the rights that they have over the elected party or representative once the election has been won or lost. “If a representative relationship cannot be formed between citizens and elected officials, citizens may begin to feel that their vote do not, in fact, count for much,” he added.

Mr. Ceesay noted that as the vote is secret, there are many circumstances where it is essential that voters should be protected from intimidation and fear of subsequent political and personal consequences. In such circumstances, he added, the message that a vote is secret has to be conveyed and to the extent that it is possible, proved.

“Each election will also have an additional set of standard messages appropriate for the particular election. In many cases, these messages will embrace a catch phrase that can be used for shorter communications such as stickers, posters and clothing. These messages need to be prepared by educators in a form that can be widely used,” he said.

He also dilated on the Frequently Asked Questions from voters.

Mr. Ceesay expressed his hope that by the end of the exercise they will be able to come up with relevant and powerful messages that will encourage the masses to come out in their numbers on Election Day and make their decision, adding it is important to know that this right comes only once every five years.