Key takeaways from US Embassy workshop on election reporting

US Ambassador to Nigeria, Symington.
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In its pursuit towards deepening Nigeria’s democracy, the United States Embassy in Abuja, organised a two-day practical and virtual training workshops for journalists.

Participants at the event included political reporters, editors as well as copy/sub-editors drawn from multiple media platforms: print, broadcast, online and mobile media organisations.

The event also featured virtual training by Gary Kebbel, Professor of Journalism from the United States; Aliyu Mustapha, Managing Editor, Hausa Service of Voice of America (VOA); international broadcaster Peter Clottey, joined by viewing parties of journalists at American Spaces in Kano, Bauchi, Ibadan and Calabar.

The programme also gave participants opportunity to share challenges encountered in previous elections they covered while the trainers offered their perspectives on how to resolve them. Also, there was review of samples of recent/past election reports.

Coming three months to the 2019 General Elections, participants were unanimous that the workshop couldn’t have come at a better time, as it afforded them opportunity to hone their skills on elections reporting.

Award-winning journalist and Editor-in-Chief of Premium Times, Musikilu Mojeed, handled various practical classes on political reporting, assisted by Festus Okoye, National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC); and Aduku Idachaba, a Professor of Mass Communication and Director of Broadcasting at National Broadcasting Commission (NBC).

One of the notable takeaways is the need for participants to use voters-voice reporting in election reports. As aptly captured by Mojeed in his lecture titled: ‘Reporting Campaigns with Voters-Voice Approach’, this method is a departure from the one-sided report often used by political reporters when covering campaigns. This approach, according to the award-winning journalist, highlights the concern of voters by getting the voices of ordinary voters alongside the politician involved.

Although most participants disagreed that this may be impossible to achieve as they shared their experiences of how they were denied campaign trips by politicians, Mojeed emphasised the need for media houses to sponsor campaign trips for their reporters in order to get objective reports. However, in the absence of this, participants were asked to file in two stories: one involving a ‘one-sided’ report in favour of the politician who sponsored the campaign and the other involving voters-voice reporting few days later.

He also taught participants how to use way back machine and Firefox to recall materials that have been altered in websites as well as download website pages from the Internet.

In the same token, he taught participants how to use the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) Public Search engine on its website to confirm list of registered companies, with emphasis on contractors involved in procuring sensitive and non-sensitive materials for INEC for the 2019 election.

The guest speaker stressed the need for political reporters to desist from defamation, derivative reporting, fake news, malicious reporting and non-conflict sensitive reporting.

He called on political reporters to be abreast with resources like Political Parties Finance Manual/Political Finance Handbook, Political Parties Code of Conduct, Election Timetable, INEC website in addition to developments in Senate and House Committees on INEC, Situation Room, Budget Office, Bureau of Public Procurement with emphasis on election-related purchases as well as salaries of public office holders on the website of Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC).

Similarly, Mojeed kicked against the trend of media houses giving awards to politicians or journalists writing columns on the beat they cover. This, he argued, will negatively influence the neutrality of such media houses or reporters.

In his presentation, Okoye informed participants on what the Commission is doing to ensure free, fair and transparent elections.

According to the legal practitioner, the new Smart Card Reader would be used not only for voters accreditation but also for transmission of election results from the Polling Unit to the Collation Centres.

He explained that while accredited media organisations and observers are allowed into Polling Units, Collation Centres and Distribution Centres, it is not permissible to attempt to record how a voter is voting or has voted on Election Day. This, he said, contravenes the secrecy of the open-secret ballot system currently under operation in the country.

Citing Sections 63, 69 and 70 of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended), he said while a Presiding Officer has the power to announce an election result in a Polling Unit, only a Returning Officer has the exclusive right of declaring the winner in an election.

“The media are allowed or permitted to record and use the votes scores by each political party as pasted in the Publication of Result Poster EC60(E).

“The media and accredited observers are not allowed or permitted to make a declaration or announce results of an election as that is legally reserved for the Returning Officer who makes a declaration and a return.

“By section 123(4) of the Electoral Act, 2010(as amended) any person who announces or publishes an election result knowing same to be false or which is at variance with the signed certificate of return commits an offence and is liable on conviction to 36 months’ imprisonment,” he said.

While clarifying that there will be simultaneous accreditation and voting in the 2019 election, Okoye pointed out that for administrative purposes, the Commission would carve out Voting Points from Polling Units with over 750 voters.

Also, speaking on NBC Guidelines for Elections Coverage, another guest speaker and Director of Broadcasting at the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Aduku Idachaba, stressed the need for broadcast stations to adhere strictly to NBC Guidelines by making deliberate efforts to give equal spaces to all parties and candidates.

The virtual trainers: Kebbel, Mustapha and Clottey called on media houses to continue to highlight instances of hate speech. However, they admitted that while projection is good in advanced countries, the development is unhealthy in developing country as it could incite the people. “Stay away from projections. The environment in Nigeria is very volatile. Projections are very dangerous (in developing countries). Stay neutral,” Clottey cautioned.

In his remarks, the United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Stuart Symington, said the whole world is looking up to Nigeria for credible exercise.

The February 16 and March 2, 2019 General Election will be the sixth quadrennial polls since the end of military rule in 1999.

According to Symington: “Nigeria is very important. Nigeria is a beacon of hope not only in West Africa but in Africa and the whole world. What happens to Nigeria will affect West Africa, Africa and the whole world”.

The US diplomat stressed the need for media houses to remain agenda setters rather than allow politicians determine the narrative.

In its determination to ensure that the event is not a one-off programme, the Embassy assured that it would open a chat room which would involve all participants (including journalists, INEC, NBC, US Embassy officials and virtual trainers) for further brainstorming and sharing of story ideas, especially for reporters.

 

OWEDE AGBAJILEKE, Abuja

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