Aug 13, 2009, 6:19 AM
Charge d’ Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Banjul, Marc Shaw, has said that through diplomacy
and assistance, the United States would remain committed to supporting
credible, transparent and inclusive elections.
He was speaking at a two-day message development workshop on voter education organised by Media Agenda and sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Banjul.
The workshop, held at the TANGO Conference Hall, was attended by 30 participants drawn from the print and electronic media.
The project, divided in three phases, is designed to train 100 media practitioners.
He said this is in line with encouraging respect for political rules, and reducing the likelihood of violence during elections.
“Around the world and in The Gambia,” he said, “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.”
He further stated: “The United States believes in and supports the democratic process, and that support includes voter registration and civic education programmes; building the capacity of election commissions; strengthening political parties; training officials and unofficial civil society election observers.”
Mr Shaw added that the U.S. Embassy was proud of the project, and they are happy to be partnering with the Media Agenda for the second time in one year, to build and enhance the capacity of Gambian journalists.
“This message development workshop is a crucial element in the U.S. Mission’s overall election strategy for The Gambia,” he went on.
“With elections rapidly approaching, we want to do all we can to promote a free, fair and transparent democratic process. The goal of the project is to expand civic empowerment and community engagement, improve voter education, and train broadcasters to be better journalists.”
The training workshop was very much consistent with the commitment of the United States to promoting democratic values, he said, adding that it is their strong conviction that an informed electorate would make informed decisions at the polls.
Experiences from other sub-Saharan African countries show that pervasive voter apathy was largely due to lack of necessary voter education, he noted.
Too often, he continued, people lose interest in the democratic process because they feel their vote doesn’t count, or because governments neglect civic education programmes.
“We don’t want to see voter apathy take hold in The Gambia, and what better medium to create an enthusiastic and informed electorate than the broadcast media,” he said.
“One can’t deny that the media plays a vital part in the democratic process. Its role must be understood and nurtured to enable it to deliver on its core mandates informing and educating.”
Mr Shaw also indicated that message development is at the heart of the profession’s mandates, saying: “The messages you develop will be broadcast on radio stations across the length and breadth of the country.”
They are sure to have a far-reaching impact, he said, adding that through these messages, rural communities would better understand their roles and responsibilities as an electorate.
“We hope that they will also better understand the duties that representatives owe to their constituencies,” he stated.
“I believe that this sort of citizen empowerment is essential for any democratic process.”
He added that a vibrant and empowered civil society is a cornerstone of democracy because it promotes inclusiveness, transparency, rule of law, and human rights.
He said President Obama elevated democracy and governance as key priorities for his administration and, on the margins of the 2013 UN General Assembly, he launched Stand with Civil Society, reaffirming the rights to freedom of assembly and association globally.
“I strongly agree with President Obama that the real ingredients for democracy include not only free and fair elections, but also freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly,” he stated.
“These rights are universal. People must be able to exercise these rights without any fear of reprisal.”
Mr Shaw also said that during critical periods like elections, citizens must be allowed to freely associate themselves with anything they find of value and interest.
“We expect that government will widen the democratic space for the participation of every citizen,” he said.
He also said the 2016 election presents a litmus test for The Gambia and its political leaders, as the Independent Electoral Commission has cleared nine political parties to contest the polls.
“We have already seen unrest and protest, followed by trials and imprisonment. This shapes an uneasy political path. It is, therefore, vital that political leaders and actors conform to best electoral practices, promote democratic values, and avoid any actions that will promote further chaos and violence,” he added.
“As elections approach, we also have the opportunity and responsibility to recognize the role of journalists,” he noted.
“Journalists and other members of the media should be able to freely investigate, research, publish and share news, information and opinions on electoral matters without fear of reprisals.”
Governments are responsible for protecting journalists from physical harm and intimidation at all times, but more so during elections, he continued.
Shaw also quoted President Obama proclaiming that, “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.”